"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
The John Butler Trio
Sunrise Over Sea
Lava Records, 1,790 yen

The first lines of the first cut on The John Butler Trio's Sunrise Over Sea tell you most of what you need to know about these wonders from Down Under:

"Don't call me a hippie 'cause the way that I look
'Cause I got a recipe and you know I can cook."

Judging by his white-boy dreadlocks and occasionally tie-dye-tinted, patchouli-scented lyrics, U.S.-born Australian guitarist-singer-songwriter John Butler deserves the hippie label, but his recipe for a spicy blues-rock stew generously seasoned with a sunny splash of reggae, a dash of Appalachian folk and soupcon of Led Zeppelin definitely hits the spot.

After starting out as a market busker in tiny Pinjarra, Australia, and moving on to release a few indie EPs, Butler hit the big time last year in his adopted homeland with this album. Sunrise Over Sea won Australian Recording Industry Association awards in 2004 for best male artist, best blues and roots album and best independent release. A recently signed deal with Atlantic Records' subsidiary Lava Records allowed international distribution in March and Butler and his bandmates, double bassist Shannon Birchall and drummer and percussionist Nicky Bomba, seem poised to make a well-deserved splash in North America.

Butler's warm voice and deft playing drive the album from the opening lapsteel blues romp of "Treat Yo Mama" to the ethereal "Bound to Ramble," though Birchall's bowed bass makes a major contribution to the latter. Other standout tracks include the bouncy "Zebra" and "Sometimes," which builds beautifully from quiet ballad to arena rock bombast.

In both the variety of stylistic influences in evidence and the rich slide guitar sound, Butler is very reminiscent of Ben Harper, but shows a warmer, more acoustic side on this album. Expect big things from this hippie bluesman in the future, but for now, enjoy one of Australia's heretofore best-kept secrets.

Ben Folds
Songs for Silverman
Epic, 2,520 yen
Ben Folds' quirky, intelligent piano-driven pop is always a treat for the ears, and his latest--Songs for Silverman--is no exception.

While Folds is now rocking the suburbs in Adelaide, Australia, instead of Anytown, USA, he is still the product of his childhood. As with his previous work, Folds wears his baby boomer pop influences on his sleeve on Songs for Silverman. The backing vocals are a bouncy, harmonious mix of the Beach Boys and Beatles, while the songs share some attitude with Randy Newman, Elvis Costello and Louden Wainwright.

Folds' main talent is as a songwriter and the 11 tracks here feel like a collection of letters he's written, received or never got to send--as in the case of "Late," his tribute to late singer-songwriter Elliot Smith.

"Gracie" is a sweet, but not saccharine, love letter to his daughter. "You to Thank" and "Give Judy My Notice" look at love affairs that unraveled. The two most likely tracks to become hits are "Landed," about returning to the world after escaping from a bad relationship, and "Bastard" a sly dig at young fogies:

"Close your eyes, close your ears young man
You've seen and heard all an old man can
Spread the facts on the floor like a fan
Throw away the ones that make you feel bad"

In the hands of a lesser artist these songs could become self-indulgent or hackneyed, but the self-effacing, arch and expert Folds makes them ham and cheese on wry.

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