Brandon Butler: Killer on the Road

Brandon Butler
Killer on the Road
Gern Blandsten

The lower the volume, the more likely you are to be taken seriously. While not a hard and fast rule, it’s a pretty accurate generalization when it comes to music. A bunch of guys playing loud, distorted guitars — although they can write some catchy tunes, they don’t really have much to say. But sit a guy down with just an acoustic guitar and all of a sudden he’s a world-weary troubadour, and we all listen intently.

It’s no surprise that Brandon Butler’s first solo album finds him adopting this troubadour role. His whole career seems to be a journey to be taken more seriously, as he distances himself from his past projects over the last ten years.

Butler’s first musical foray was with the mid-’90s Kansas City band Boy’s Life. Some described them as post-hardcore or experimental indie but when it came down to it, they were what they were: an emo band. They did have more up their sleeve than most emo bands, and weren’t as quick to annoy, but the label still fit. In just the couple of years the band was together, emo went from being a word most people didn’t know the meaning of to a punchline of sorts for those in the know. For any self-respecting musician, it was a tag to run and hide from.

After Boy’s Life’s demise, Butler fronted the very similar sounding Farewell Bend. Not much changed musically, but there was a key geographic shift as Butler left the Midwest for the nation’s capital. While it may have been emo in Kansas City, in D.C. it could pass for just another band worshipping at the altar of Fugazi and Dischord Records. So this was a step in the right direction, at least.

With his next band, Canyon, Butler looked to erase all of the hints of an emo past. The band drew heavy influences from Neil Young and crafted spacey country-rock with plenty of reverb, much like My Morning Jacket. Its two studio albums were enjoyable, if inconsequential, affairs with plenty of pretty sounds but not as much in the way of memorable songs. It was enough to make the band the band a pretty well-known commodity in Washington, and subsequent Butler solo gigs made his solo debut one to be on the lookout for.

With Killer on the Road, Butler keeps the general mood of the Canyon releases, but this is an even more somber affair. It’s not always just him and his acoustic guitar, although that’s certainly the foundation for all of the songs. This is a good way to get people to really listen, but as is often the case, there’s not that much to listen to. When you strip the sound down as much as he does, there is a far greater emphasis on the lyrics and vocals, for obvious reasons. And in these departments, Butler isn’t much more than average. The lyrics aren’t embarrassing, but are by no means revelatory. Quite often you’ll hear the first part of a line and immediately know which word he’ll use to finish the rhyme.

His high-pitched voice — about the polar opposite of Richard Buckner — almost evokes Neil Young, but it’s not quite as distinct and instead more irritating. It grows on you with repeated listening, but it still sounds best on songs where there’s more to listen to than just him and his guitar. An example of that would be the rollicking “Next Time”, one of the few tracks to feature a full band. It sounds like Ryan Adams without the pretension or slick ’70s production, and the presence of a snappy rhythm and extra guitar lines makes for a much more complete song than anything else on the album.

But then again, that’s probably not what Butler was going for. The somber and plodding “True Believer” and title track are closer to the norm here. These are slow-moving songs that seem to exist more to create a mood than anything else, which can be said for the album as a whole. As the next step in his musical evolution, this could very well have been Butler’s goal. Maybe next time he’ll worry less about how he presents himself and more about creating the best songs possible. Then he could be on to something.