Through their first three albums, Portland, OR’s The Builders and the Butchers have established themselves as a sort of uber-dark version of The Decemberists, with Ryan Sollee’s reedy voice standing in for Colin Meloy, and an abundance of folkie instrumentation (bazouki, mandolin, banjo) powering an array of gothic tunes rife with dead children; murderous parents; devils; preachers; and visions of the apocalypse that seem torn from a Flannery O’Connor fever dream. In the process, The B&Bs make The Decemberists look like lightweight, good-time fluff.
Now comes Western Medicine, the band’s fourth full-length and a worthy addition to their growing canon of doom. The good news for fans is that Sollee and co. are continuing to explore familiar territory, both thematically and instumentally. The bad news, perhaps, is that there isn’t a huge amount of experimentation or new ground. For the most part, this is just fine, as the band solidifies their grip on their own dark little patch of the popular-music map. For fans hankering for something new, though, there’s not much here, and much of what is new (some horns, some female vocals, rather more piano) isn’t terribly memorable.
Let’s start with the good news, as there is plenty. Album opener “Blood Runs Cold” is classic B&B, a typically cheery tale of—I think—accidental murder. (Sometimes it’s hard to be sure with these guys). Sollee’s quavering voice carries just the right amount of angst, remorse and defiance, which is pretty much its default setting. Follow-up tune “Dirt in the Ground” is an uptempo rave-up and one of the strongest songs on the album. If a chorus of “one day you’ll be the dirt in the ground” get your blood going, this just might be your new favorite band.
These two songs turn out to just be the warm-up for “No Roses”, another standout track and the crowning tune in a strong opening trifecta of excellent songs. The titular lack of roses refers to the absence of flowers on the narrator’s grave; the speaker’s death apparently did a number on his father, which is no surprise, especially considering that in the preceding song this father (or maybe somebody else’s) tried to kill himself in the back yard. Or possibly crucify himself. Or something. I told you, things are rarely clear with this band, but you can be fairly sure that whatever is going on, it’s bad.
After this strong start, it’s almost inevitable that the album will sag a little, and so it does, but only a bit, and there are still plenty of good moments to be had. “Pennies in the Well” flirts with flamenco rhythms and trumpet flourishes which, if not entirely successful, are at least rather peppier than much of what has gone before. “Watching the World Burn” is rather less engaging, with warbling female vocals midway through that are distracting rather than enjoyable. “Hell Fire Mountain” is a downtempo, bluesy number that—with somewhat different instrumentation and vocals—wouldn’t sound out of place on any number of doom metal albums. Just to be clear: this is a good thing.
Finally, the album closes with another strong pair of songs. “Ceceil” tells a convoluted tale of revenge that is as straightforwardly rocking as anything you’re likely to hear this year, while “Take Me Home” closes the proceedings on a surprisingly gentle, devotional note. The fact that the band can end the album with a song like this, free of ironic overtones despite the bleakness of all the preceding, speaks volumes about The Builders and the Butchers’ ability—especially Sollee’s—to inhabit the material fully.
The Builders and the Butchers remain one of the great underrated bands on the contemporary pop-music landscape. This a somewhat more even release than their previous, Dead Reckoning, which had both a couple of stronger tunes and one or two throwaways. With any luck at all, hordes of listeners will flock to the band to embrace their tales of woe, sin, and hopelessness. All aboard, folks!