The Builders and the Butchers

REVIEW: The Builders and the Butchers “Hell & High Water”


The Builders and the Butchers are emblematic of both the way that bands initially form and the methods that so many make music now. From forming in Portland, Oregon in 2005 and taking any gig they could find while developing their sound to today, wth band members scattered across the country living “grown-up” lives, The six musicians (all native Alaskans) found time and reason to gather in 2019 to write and begin to formulate a new album, only to have their plans scuttled in early 2020. Working remotely, the band was able to complete Hell & High Water, a fiery, tension-filled take on Americana.

The events of the past two years surely affected the tone of the record – Hell & High Water seems to have borrowed its title, and its mood, from the pandemic, Oregon wildfires and fierce protests and riots in Portland. The Builders and the Butchers have often made good use of the quiet-loud-quiet aesthetic of 90s alt-rock, and it shows up on the album’s first track, “The River,” which centers on singer Ryan Sollee’s howling release of two years worth of frustration and fury – “I’m gonna take this bottle and drown/Same as my bloodline in a barbed wire town.” Next up is “West Virginia,” the band’s take on life as a fugitive (and the first of three state-titled songs on the record). The song is highly effective in its portrayal of life in the holler – “And all of the cars in the yard all turn to dust/And all of the ashes turn to rust.” 

The Builders and the Butchers began their life as a folky, unplugged band, and their embrace of not-just-rock instrumentation survives to this day – piano, banjo and mandolin are liberally sprayed across their records (when I saw the band open for Heartless Bastards in Baltimore in 2011, they left small percussion instruments on the edge of the stage for members of the audience to play, to the utter delight of at least one of their most ardent fans). “Hand in the Grave” adds banjo and keys to a tale of many regrets – “Whiskey and cocaine made you a slave.” “Nebraska” throws some steel and organ into this elegy of a song – “The weeds may grow up through the fences/Plant a rose in the dust for me.” And “Name in the Sky” is a downright banjo-led tent revival. Other tunes, though, take a harder edge. “Stop the Rain” teases with an acoustic intro before slamming into electric mode, and “Montana” is filled with enough guitars to stretch from Yellowstone to Glacier. The Builders and The Butchers, once again, show they can take their dark songs across a wide dynamic range, from quietly mournful to a full-on howl. Pretty much like the last two years of all of our lives. 

Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Sonora Highway Song” – like album bookender “The River,” it makes the best use of Sollee’ cut-loose-when-it-serves-the song vocals, supplemented by big ol’ guitar riffs. 

Go here to order Hell & High Water (out May 6):

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