Kenny Butterill,
Troubadour Tales
(NoBullSongs, 2014)

Canadian singer-songwriter Kenny Butterill has three musical influences, all worn on his sleeve.

The first and most obvious is the late J.J. Cale, and two and three are the still-living Donovan (who contributes harmonica on one cut) and the late Phil Ochs. Butterill, however, is not the mostly politicized writer Ochs famously was. After the first two cuts -- "Good Thing That Couldn't Happen Here" (a broadside against media and political corruption) and "Gaia Blues" (a sort of Donovan-like fairytale lamenting the state of the Earth) -- Butterill is off into other territory. Traveled, it must be said, without the lightest of step.

Subtle and nuanced are not adjectives that characterize what he puts to paper. Consider a couple of representative examples:

TV News used to birddog for the people
But like the Suits, they're just as evil...

All I need is your image in mind
The truth of my love transcends space and time.

I used to be a songwriter -- I still get royalty checks from those now-distant efforts -- and thus I speak, perhaps, with some authority when I observe that the fact words may rhyme (more or less) is not sufficient reason to rhyme them (more or less). Only (approximate) rhyme is happening in lines like these, as opposed to cogently expressed broader sentiment. I certainly have nothing against straightforward, un-obscure lyrics, but Butterill is simply not very good at them. Beyond that, his voice has such a limited range that his singing feels more like a kind of speaking.

The above is ordinarily fatal, and it would be easy to end the review there. Except that, oddly and unexpectedly, Troubadour Tales is actually enjoyable. Butterill comes across as a humble and approachable guy, always a plus as far as I'm concerned. Recorded over six years in a dizzying variety of recording studios in Canada, the United States (California, Texas, Tennessee, New York) and Austria, it boasts a clean, crisply professional, irresistibly appealing sound, and not only because much of it owes to Cale's rolling blues rhythms. (One cut, "Hocus Pocus," is a tribute to Cale. To his credit Butterill is open about his musical debts.) Butterill never forces his voice to do anything it can't do, and so it works comfortably within its small confines. If there are many performers who are technically more able, not many can put forth such an aura of unforced amiability and sincere authenticity.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 November 2015

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