The most surprising thing about Runaway Butlers to me is their age: describing themselves as “graduated high school students” and having only played a handful of shows, I'm guessing these four tux-clad gentlemen are still fairly young, if not fresh-faced adults. Why this is such a shocker to me is because Midnight District is a pretty sophisticated concept album, both in sound and story.
The midnight district is a rather unsavory place: prostitution on the streets, vandals smashing windows, beggars in rags. As the listener is taken through this place by a familiar core pop/indie sound of electric and acoustic guitars, bass, and drums, small changes are made in each track to reflect the mood and attitude depending on which part of the journey we're on. The melancholy title track presents the first few steps into the district, whereupon singer/writer Thomas Molash, with his smooth, at times lifting voice, is first exposed to what dangers exist in the big city.
This loss of innocence is underscored by a charming synth melody running through the track, the sound of which is (appropriately enough) similar to a child's music box. Much later, the reactionary “City With No Lights” nixes that synth and, driven by a bursting energy, pushes the electric guitar to the forefront while allowing for a bit of a string arrangement to accent the background. These transformations aren't exactly genre changes so much as tonal shifts; given the structure of the album's story and it's pacing, said shifts never feel forced and are at times both subtle and impressive.
Since I've touched upon the writing already, I should tilt my hand and say I'm a sucker for albums with continuing narratives. While my earlier synopsis may be the result of some inferring on my part, the thematic elements are continuous throughout. Our character(s) seek change in the larger world, drift further from home, and lose their identities. It's done in such a way that no one track becomes lyrically dependent on another to get it's point across, which really is the trick to telling stories in this way successfully.
And the narrative is, in my opinion, the crown jewel here. That isn't to say that the playing is somehow flawed, but the sound is not where the band's signature lies: Runaway Butlers are a group of storytellers who just happen to be pretty sharp with their instruments.
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