Butane Variations (Achord Recordings)

cd_butaneThis six-piece psych-tinged Americana ensemble, headed by songwriters Phil Weinrobe and John-Paul Norpoth, just seems to know something other bands don't. Or maybe they care more.

 

 

 

 

 

Taste. Some bands got it, some bands not so much. Some bands make things yummy, and some are just crumb-y.

And that, my friends, is what makes this music critiquing racket interesting and worthwhile. It's fun to bring to your attention the finer points of cookin' in the rock 'n' roll kitchen, and how certain offerings clearly make for a more savory sonic meal than others.

Butane Variations, a band you most likely haven't heard of, are damn tasty. This six-piece psych-tinged Americana ensemble, headed by songwriters Phil Weinrobe and John-Paul Norpoth, just seems to know something other bands don't. Or maybe they care more. Their self-titled debut isn't all that original, and it sure isn't any kind of a big statement. But it goes down real, real easy, and there's no musical trans fat to be found. This is some seriously lean songcrafting cuisine, with lotsa rootsy good protein.

Metaphors aside, the members of Butane Variations sound truly delighted to be making music, and they achieve a nearly flawless balance between their solid rhythm section, the harmony-laden vocals (pitched halfway between The Band and Simon & Garfunkel), and the richly rendered instrumentation, which draws upon cello, pedal steel, banjo and the odd horn, in addition to the usual suspects. If you miss early Wilco, loping folksy rockers like "Skyward, Upward" and "Airforce One" should bring a smile to your face. There's a sureness of intent on these songs that positively jumps from the grooves; every ingredient falls into place effortlessly. The vocals are chipper, warm and just a tad rustic.

On "Big Belly Laugh," you'll certainly think of Jeff Tweedy on those higher notes, but the singular banjo marks out some new territory. So does the eccentric "Dashland Sandy," which begins with handclaps and a bit of tribal percussion and develops into a semi-psychedelic rocker that tickles your eardrums. Everything sounds either well thought out on these tunes, or the result of late-night inspired jam sessions, with the band retaining all the best takes.

On the compellingly somber "First Day in June," there's a pivotal moment when you've been lured into the mood by an evocative trio of guitar, cello and bass, but drums and harmony vocals suddenly kick in together and take the song to another level. It's invigorating, honestly. And "Angels" has a pretty unusual arrangement that features pedal steel, a dash of creative dissonance, and that solid rhythm section keeping itself on the right side of subtle. It's also worth mentioning the rustic mini-epic "Folded Face First," which could've been boring in the hands of a lesser band. But here, it's not. It's breezy and pleasant, like most of this platter.

Tested on a trusty car stereo, Butane Variations met every yardstick for good road music—it has movement, it has solid instrumental muscle, and the vocals are tastefully, smoothly rendered. They may not become chart toppers (subtlety seldom does), but in the realm of melodic, indie-fried Americana, Butane Variations serves it up just right. B | Kevin Renick

RIYL: Wilco, The Band, the melodic side of Pavement

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