The Builders and the Butchers make records the way the bards used to pass on stories. They’re poetic and captivating, and do to songwriting what Clint Eastwood does to movies. On its fourth album, Dead Reckoning, the band continues that tradition, pounding out 12 more boot-stomping folk rock tracks, all with an epic story line to keep the listener riveted.
Each of The Builders’ albums thus far has taken on a different folk theme. This one is distinctly Southern Americana, picking up a Delta blues-inspired country as the backing to a loosely Katrina-like flood story. Intense subject matter, yes, but it’s what this band does best. The Builders write adventure stories with literary notions filling out the lyrics, and apropos acoustics backing it all up. The disc includes a reluctant protagonist with a pessimistic, but realist perspective, a helpless town, and the forces of good and evil battling it out, with sometimes not-so-happy endings for the people trapped in the middle.
Musically, Dead Reckoning pulls back on the grandeur of previous albums, leaving only the basic acoustic elements. The organs, strings, and horns are left at a minimum, always in the back of the song, letting those strong vocals, guitars, and kick drum take care of raising the hairs. This creates a presence that makes the music feel close, as if it were done in one take, with no apparent production work. The vocals hang as if Ryan Sollee is right there with you, the music excelling by the pure virtue of its naturally loud and furious pace.
This also makes the stories more approachable, more believable, like folk tales used to be, with fascinating characters and tragic heroes. Not many bands can create absorbing stories like these, as Sollee delivers heavy hitting lines like “The levee’s underwater, the ocean starts to scream.” That one in particular comes on “All Away”, a softly plucked track that details an impeding doom. “Rotten to the Core” takes a Dylan-esque country approach, adding sharp social jabs into the story line. The addition of organ makes for the band’s busiest track to date. “It Came From the Sea”, a mandolin-led sailors’ ode, and the following “Lullaby”, a suspenseful, bleak flood story, both add their own levels of emotion, with string-breaking strums added to build the suspense and chaos. And this is only half of the story, all before our protagonist attempts to save those who are yet alive on “Out of the Mountain”.
Standing out, the last couple of tracks step up the production level by bringing in electric guitars and bringing the pianos forward, creating something quite modern. It’s a perspective that’s new for the band, and one that wouldn’t be too bad on its own. Those tracks are a departure from the rest of the record, the organ on “Family Tree” bringing on a Band-like gospel feel. It’s an excellent way to close the record, and get the listener out of the dark place they were left in thanks to all of that death and destruction.
The Builders and the Butchers are highly underrated, and, in a perfect world, Dead Reckoning will squash that fact. The group’s albums keep getting better, the content distinctively creative, with quality to lean on from end to end. Beyond the elaborate prose, the songs are outstanding and full of an energy that combines careful technique with rousing jams. Dead Reckoning is a unique and wild experience, one that’s not to be passed up.