Wednesday, April 23, 2014
By RICK JOHNSON
A shambling, strange and murky record, Butcher Boy's "Shoreless Sea" is also strangely compelling. It's a dark and unsettling listening experience, but it's also a bit like a macabre audio scavenger hunt.
HOW IT RATES
BUTCHER BOY: "SHORELESS SEA"
PRODUCED BY Frank Hopkins and Butcher Boy
-- Based on a four-star scale
Bits of gorgeous melody bob to the surface amidst the clang and chaos of rootsy musical experimentation. Snatches of surreal poetry paint ghostly images in the mind as the songs shuffle and lurch toward an unknown destination.
This is certainly not background music. No, "Shoreless Sea" is a classic headphone album, a solitary listening experience where new dark hiding places within the songs reveal themselves with each new listen.
Butcher Boy's musical foundation is one of folk and traditional country. The instruments are mostly traditional as well, with guitar, bass and drums augmented by dobro, banjo, glockenspiel and even a lonely moaning trombone.
But if you're expecting a nice, lazy summer day on the back porch-type of listening experience, think again, because the arrangements are anything BUT traditional.
The opening track, "Hand in the Window," starts with a chilling bit of musique concrete. Solitary footsteps crunch on a gritty concrete floor, while a mysterious pounding from an unknown source echoes through an abandoned hallway. Manic and jittery guitars fade in, but their presence provides no comfort. A distant and morose trombone bleats out weary notes, until the slow and plodding drums kick in underneath the bent notes of a dobro.
The track is bathed in a solemn funereal atmosphere, and the ragged and slightly off-key vocal harmonies only serve to add another layer of dread to the whole experience, until the entire track dissolves into a cacophony of dissonant notes and shouted voices verging on hysteria.
On "Cousin," vocalist Pete (no last name given) sings in a nasally but emotive twang that sounds like a cross between an obtuse Bob Dylan and a sad and intoxicated Gomer Pyle. Instrumentation remains sparse, only to explode noisily once again toward the close of the song.
On "In the Wash," the vocals hang back in the mix and are coated with just enough reverb to make them sound as if they're coming from the bottom of a well or a jail cell down the hall on death row. There's a female spoken-word bit in the middle that's mixed low and echoey, making it frustratingly difficult to make out the actual words. But the technique works, and adds to the depth and mystery of the song.
Tricky tempo changes and impassioned backing vocals keep things interesting on "Empty Ocean," and the album closer, "Androscoggin County," starts off with an almost punk-rock ferocity before morphing into a sort of experimental instrumental jam that reminds one of the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.
"Shoreless Sea" is certainly one of the most original local releases of 2012, but it's definitely not for everyone. Happy melodies and sing-along choruses are nowhere to be found, and an overwhelming sense of dread that permeates the album may prove too intense for some listeners.
But those looking for a more contemplative listening experience (albeit a dark and mildly disturbing one) should cast off immediately and set sail on Butcher Boy's "Shoreless Sea."
Find Butcher Boy on Facebook, and download the tracks at butcherband.bandcamp.com/album/shoreless-sea.
Rick Johnson is a freelance writer and radio host from Westbrook. He can be reached at: