If you’re a fan of Phillip Roebuck’s high-energy, one-man band performances, you’ll love at least half of his new album, The Alpine Butterfly, which adds to his oeuvre of genre-defying banjo music.
Fans who go farther back—and perhaps those craving a little more diversity than his last few albums offered—will also love the other half, which features brilliantly crafted songs on acoustic and electric guitar.
For the uninitiated, Roebuck doesn’t just play the banjo; he attacks it. His style is powerful and naturally percussive on its own, but he takes his craft to a different level by beating out a rhythm on a bass drum and tambourine he carries on his back and controls with straps connected to boot spurs. Oh, yeah: He also sings. Passionately. Equal parts folk, blues, pop, rock and punk, his performances are jaw-droppingly good and have to be seen live to be fully appreciated. (As AltDaily described one of his Taphouse shows in 2012: “mind-blowing genius badass-ity.”)
While the hard-driving, one-man band work continues in new tracks like “She’s A Dollar He’s A Dime” and “Cupid’s Gun,” what sets The Alpine Butterfly apart from Fever Pitch (2006) and Inertia (2004) is the variety of styles presented and instruments played. In the space three songs, for example, Roebuck goes from the jangly banjo shuffle of “Lucky One” to the distorted blues harp of “Lay Me Down” to the acoustic heartbreak of “I Will Still Be Your Man.” Later, he delivers “Them Eyes,” a minimalist electric guitar riff that would make Dan Auerbach jealous.
Every one of the 12 tracks is great in its own way, but a few warrant special mention.
“Somebody Take Me Home” may be the best representation yet of Roebuck’s one-man band phase. While the music is uplifting and the verses are sweeping and self-reflective—the lyrical equivalent of a road movie—there’s a sense of fatigue and longing in the chorus: “Somebody take me home / While I still believe / While the pines are still the pines / And there’s something left of me.” Roebuck isn’t just a troubadour; he’s a serious poet, and this piece is easily his most anthemic.
“No April Sun,” one of the acoustic guitar songs, is more cryptic lyrically but absolutely hypnotizing musically. I can’t explain why, but this one in particular made me sentimental for The Hollowbodies, the excellent band Roebuck fronted in the ’90s.
That said, my favorite song is “The Woman You’ve Become.” It starts out in an unusual place for a love song (“You are not the one I gave my heart to / You are not the girl I knew”), but Roebuck delivers an emotional twist in the chorus: “I thought you should know / Today I fell in love / With a woman / With a woman / With the woman you’ve become.” I still get goose bumps every time I listen to it.
The blueprint image on the album cover reveals that The Alpine Butterfly is a knot, not an insect. More specifically, it’s a fixed loop that can be tied without access to either end of a rope, and it’s popular with climbers because it can be tied with only one hand. It’s a great metaphor for Roebuck, suggesting that he’s securely fastened in the slack between his musical past and future. Listening to an album as polished and compelling as The Alpine Butterfly, it’s obvious he’s continuing to climb to new heights.
The Alpine Butterfly was recorded at Manual Records in Norfolk and released in December. Roebuck will host a release party on Saturday, Feb. 15 at The Jewish Mother in Virginia Beach.
To download the album now or order it on CD or vinyl, visit: http://philliproebuck.bandcamp.com/.
Read more about Roebuck in a 2010 AltDaily profile: http://www.altdaily.com/features/music/130-artist-profiles45/3935-87phillip-roebuck-making-the-case-for-playing-your-heart-out