A Place In America (EP)

Butchers Blind

Electric Giant Productions, 2015

http://www.butchersblind.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/16/2015

As a genre, Americana is fueled by the intangible as much as the tangible. The rootsy, country-tinged indie-rock arrangements, the naturalistic narratives and grounded, often fatalistic wisdom are the foundations. What elevates the genre’s finest examples is harder to pin down, but if pressed I’d call it integrity. A willingness to dig deep and put yourself out there emotionally, to not just create but inhabit your songs.

Fresh from their strong 2013 LP Destination Blues, Long Island quartet Butchers Blind returns this month with A Place In America, a six-song EP that’s frustrating only in its brevity. Simply put, this is the most ambitious and accomplished set of tunes yet from Pete Mancini (vocals, guitar, songwriting), Paul Anthony (drums, harmony vocals), Brian Reilly (bass) and Christopher Smith (piano and organ).

The heart and soul of the set resides in three songs, a sort of 21st century American Gothic trilogy. Opener “Dead Horses” starts out running off the piano line before building toward a powerful crescendo. “It’s hard to say you’re someone when your best is not good enough,” sings Mancini, his naturally plaintive voice taking on a hint of Don Henley rasp. (There’s a sort of laconic vulnerability to his voice that inevitably reminds of Jeff Tweedy as well.)

Next up is the truly stunning “Black & White Dreams.” Against a surging musical backdrop, Mancini sings:

“Goodbye and good luck
It’s all been written before
Just climb this ladder
To keep the wolves from the door
I’m livin’ hand to mouth
In this whitewashed town
You spend your whole life
Tryin’ to get outmy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

(Chorus)
I want to feel complete
Leave something behind like the names of these streets
A spark in the eye of those who believed in the great generation
Black and white dreams”

Mancini’s artful lyric lays out the bankruptcy of a fantasy that’s haunted the nation for too long, blind nostalgia for a quote-unquote simpler time whose dark undercurrents and still-reverberating consequences are conveniently ignored in memory.

“Twisting In The Wind” offers a momentary detour, a Hammond-heavy barroom thumper singalong about another hapless romantic chasing dreams that are “going down in flames.” And then we get to the heart of the matter, the third act of the aforementioned trilogy, “A Place In America.” Starting out slow and stately with just piano and acoustic, Mancini intones:

“I see the hearts and minds
Of a simpler time
I feel the cold embrace
Through tangled wires
We paid our dues
We got fenced-in blues
Another broken-glass past
All misconstrued 

I’m watchin’ it all go down on a screen
They’re chasin’ their Manhattans and their dreams
Some of us grow old and drown
Bitter rants and screams
Some of us find a place in America”

From there, Mancini essays a landscape of “broken homes” and “dead-end jobs” until in the fourth minute, the song finds another gear, moving into a heavier section as Mancini cries out “I wish I had a place in America” with increasing urgency as the music gets bigger and harder and angrier all around him. There’s no getting around it; this song locates and taps into the same pooling reservoir of desperation Springsteen sang about on The River and Nebraska, still haunting us a generation later. It’s cinemascope songwriting backed by powerhouse performance.

The final pair of tracks are less fraught but plenty strong. “Ghosts” is an easygoing bit of barroom philosophy (“To be nineteen, to laugh and scream / Like ghosts of who we were”) with a sweet lap steel solo. And closer “Only Love” is a rolling, ringing mid-tempo love song, offering the only hopeful note on this disc in its closing moments: “It’s taken me so long / I think I’ve got it right / I see in your eyes / Only love, only love.”

This set of songs benefits from a sharp mix by Eric Ambel, guitarist in Steve Earle’s band and producer of a couple of terrific albums from Mark McKay. In other words, Ambel knows this strain of earnest, literate Americana inside out, and it shows.

In the end, the only real flaw of this EP is that it’s over too soon; you’re just learning to fully appreciate what Butchers Blind brings to the table -- excellent songwriting, sharp ensemble performances, and a ton of integrity -- when the last note fades. A Place In America feels like half of a great album; I can’t wait to hear the whole thing.

Rating: A-

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