I first heard Butcher Boy’s second album on my wife’s birthday when – at her request, I took the car to a garden centre in Enfield and filled it up with a shopping list of plants that she had requested. I grabbed a handful of previously unheard CDs and filled the CD changer with them. I had high hopes for React Or Die because the sleeve image looked fantastic and it had a great title. I knew before the record even finished that I would have to listen to it again straight away. It consumed me in the way that albums like Aztec Camera’s High Land Hard Rain and Dexys’ Too Ry-Aye had consumed me as a child. I begged The Times (where I was working at the time) to let me make it the lead album review in the following week’s paper. I remember sitting in a Starbucks in Glasgow en route to a Bat For Lashes concert and knowing that I had only given myself two hours to sum up everything I thought about this record. As you’ll see, I was convinced it was going to set a benchmark for literate indiepop just as records by The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian had done before it. I guess all sorts of external factors contribute to a record having that sort of impact – and whilst it didn’t quite happen for React Or Die, I’m still certain that in ten or twenty years time, Butcher Boy’s music will elicit the sort of intense adoration that their musical forbears have come to enjoy.
By the time Oasis cloned it, fattened it up, shoved marching powder up its nose and gave it the full Adidas makeover, the only thing indie music shared with its beleaguered twin was a name. In the mid-90s, with The Smiths and the bands that came in their wake long defunct, a strain of pop music for people who read books and wore duffle coats had suddenly become an endangered species.
Hence, when Belle And Sebastian arrived in 1996, they represented a rearguard action for a marginalized aesthetic. People who complained that their live shows sounded like an unrehearsed school orchestra were missing the point. As weapons go, such unabashed feyness was probably no more effective than those poor Tibetan monks who think that meditation is a more powerful weapon than Chinese guns. But there’s a difference between pledging your allegiance and simply picking the winning team. Thirteen years after The Smiths released This Charming Man, Belle And Sebastian re-emphasised the core values of indiepop. Now, another thirteen years on, here’s an album that will do it all over again.
If React Or Die feels like the result of all that history, that’s no accident. Like Belle And Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, Butcher Boy’s 34 year-old frontman John Blain Hunt gravitated from Ayrshire to Glasgow and spent years observing the city’s music scene as an outsider. He was a published poet before meeting musicians who helped him turn his creations into the songs on 2007’s Profit In Your Poetry debut. But as if to formalize his transition to proper frontman, his group’s second album begins with When I’m Asleep – little more than a single couplet repeated over a fine rain of cello and mandolins.
Beyond the opening-credits sweep of that song, Hunt’s words fill the void where the important stuff between friends and lovers inevitably remains unsaid. You’re Only Crying For Yourself is a case in point, a meeting between two changed souls attempting in the face of circumstances to understand each other. With the halting meter of a Caledonian Jake Thackray. Hunt sings “The face in the photograph would send me home but you won’t.”
If there’s tenderness in the tension he describes, it works the other way too. “We jaw for a month but we’re such kittenish drunks that it makes it worse,” he sings on This Kiss Will Marry Us, before Aioife Magee’s violin swirls like a thermal current beneath him. Here and elsewhere, the pretty precision of Butcher Boy’s arrangements suggests several turntable miles spent alternately listening to French 60s pop dandy Michel Polnareff and, on Clockwork, Charlie Brown pianist Vince Guaraldi. That Hunt grew up on a diet of Peanuts strips seems appropriate given the sentiments of songs like A Better Ghost, where much as the hapless round-headed kid might once have done, he utters, “You’re haunted by a better ghost than me.”
And despite the fact that Sunday Bells is the only tune here that runs fast enough to break into a sweat, every song in React Or Die elicits a thrill beyond speed or volume that – on reflection – is peculiar to pretty much every great record in your collection. The secret ingredient here is the monastic commitment that the most beautiful pop songs divine from those given the job of playing them. By filling up an album with them, Butcher Boy have set a standard against which every other release this year must surely be judged.