The Buttertones first met at music college in 2011, and since then the Los Angeles band have been developing their sound with craftsman-like patience. Their latest album, Midnight in a Moonless Dream, is in part a reaffirmation of their combined strengths and also a well-considered step forward.
“We’re all over the map,” Buttertones singer-guitarist Richard Araiza told i-D in an interview early last year, describing his band’s influences. That is a normal situation in any band, and the complications that come with negotiating different inspirations multiply with every member, of which the Buttertones have five: Araiza, guitarist Dakota Boettcher, drummer/multi-instrumentalist Modesto Cobian, saxophonist London Guzman and bassist Sean Redman. It is to their credit, then, that the group has cut a more or less steady path over the past five years. The Buttertones are steeped in the musical legacy of their home state of California. Starting with their self-titled debut in 2013 to last year’s Gravedigging, they have tied together compatible elements of surf rock, psychobilly and LA punk with a thread of debonair swing.
Midnight in a Moonless Dream doesn’t fix what isn’t broken, but it makes clear that the band are eager to start building something more on the base they’ve established. The album, in fact, was originally only intended to be a stopgap EP. Recorded in two sessions with producer/engineer Jonny Bell (who had previously handled Gravedigging) at Jazzcats studios in Long Beach, the planned track list of six songs had nearly doubled when all was said and done. The band went on an unexpected roll, and Bell subsequently captured performances that project that increased assuredness.
The Buttertones aren’t pulling their punches of youthful abandon, but they are stepping with a bit more wisened swagger. This is brought to the fore in their live performances, which they carry off with a rough-edged approach to soul revue showmanship. If the group’s swerving rock ‘n’ roll id and besuited student-of-the-art superego suggest that there are two competing sides to the Buttertones, the structure of Midnight in a Moonless Dream almost encourages that idea. It is a ‘side A and side B’ album that draws out two distinct moods.
Warming up with the sax-driven instrumental “At the Dojo”, the first thrust of side A comes from “Baby C4”, Araiza gasping and grasping as the psychobilly party spins out of control around him. “Not even all the luck in the world / Can save me from her nails,” he wails falling victim to love’s fate. Much of Moonless Dream takes place in lonely midnight beds or in the space between star-crossed lovers. “Old Nick’s Still Got It” crosses an old Western film motif with what could be the story of a man with a split personality (who may have just gotten out of prison), but could also stand in for another strained relationship (“It’s drenched in cliche yes I know but someday / You’ll see things my way / Keep looking around for a friend / Somehow I keep running into him, old Nick”).
The first half of the album fortifies what the Buttertones have heretofore done best, but the second half is where Moonless Dream really opens up. Slowing down from their usual pace creates the kind of space they haven’t done much with since tracks like “Dionysus” from their debut. “Darling, I Need Time But Don’t Really Know Why”, with its mood of bittersweet lament and a couple of overcast Smiths-ian chord flourishes, is a new look for the band and a highlight of the album. The same goes for the lithe “You and Your Knife”, with its strutting bassline and muted guitar strokes turning the prospect of romance into a threat: “You and your knife / Cut through the room / I love you now / So watch your mouth.” The swooning “Eros” closes the album with orchestral flair, with contributions from Sarah Long on violin and Richard Dodd on cello (both of whom also play on other tracks), Isaac Padilla on trumpet, and Cobian adding flute.
Having been together as long as they have, many other bands in their position would have started to settle in some time ago, but Midnight in a Moonless Dream shows the Buttertones unhesitant to pick up and start taking chances at any point.