[23 March 2011]
The first thing you have to get past is the voice. Ryan Sollee’s tremulous warble is a nasal concoction reminiscent of Colin Meloy, though less melodic, more twangy, and inflected with a certain stomach-clenching angst. It is thin and none too steady, and may be an acquired taste. I think of it as something that a listener will decide upon, thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down style, in about ten seconds flat.
If you come down in the thumbs-up camp, then prepare to be delighted for the rest of the trip. The Builders and the Butchers’ latest full length is a joy, a stew of folk-rock fury that’s as much rock as folk, at least as far as attitude goes. This Portland, Oregon-based band shares more than a little with that other one, the Decemberists, in terms of aesthetic and overall sound. The Builders and the Butchers explore a sonically darker, thematically grimmer patch of the universe, though, as unlikely as that might seem.
“I Broke the Vein” kicks off the album with a gloomy dirgelike air that ramps up in tempo and intensity two and a half minutes in. Follow-up number “Rotten to the Core” is a scorcher, with what sounds like bouzouki backing up a frantically strummed guitar, as Sollee’s vocals at their most vitriolic keen above it all. Less successful is the shanty-esque “It Came from the Sea,” a rare moment when the band seems less than inspired. The moment passes quickly, however.
A multitude of instruments lend their voices to the dense sonic stew on this record, with slide guitar, banjo, organ and violin filling out the basic drums/bass/guitar/voice template. For the most part the sounds are warm, organic and full, but this doesn’t mean they are particularly pretty or sweet. Sollee’s tortured vocals make sure of that, but so too does the on-target drumming of Ray Rude and Brandon Hafer (both are credited) and song structures whose dynamics rise and fall and whose tempos speed up and slow down.
The intensity remains throughout the middle of the record, as midtempo songs like “Moon Is on the March” and “Cradle on Fire” keep the momentum chugging along. “We All Know the Way” trades acoustic rhythms for scratchy guitars and repeated lyric lines as it follows a jittery proto-blues opening to its foot-stomping conclusion.
As if that weren’t enough, the album gets stronger as it goes along. The second half is every bit as strong as the first, with the minor exception of “Blood for You”, whose 82 seconds of drum-banging and hollering would have been better left in the studio archives. But the jauntily raucous “Black Elevator” and the gospel-inflected, thoroughly furious “Family Tree” are the two best songs here, and they close out the record strongly.
The band’s previous album, 2009’s Salvation Is a Deep Dark Well, earned the band some good reviews, but not as much exposure as it deserved. With any justice, this new record will set that right. Dead Reckoning deserves to be heard by anyone with an interest in the ongoing evolution of rock music, or the darker side of the folk songbook, or just great songs played with power and conviction.