Wild Mountain Nation
Blitzen Trapper are, or should be, the darlings of the Portland music scene. They have become the darlings of Pitchfork magazine and other influential national Indie music rags, Why? Because they’re fucking great, that’s why!!! They also have been touring the nation relentlessly, of late. This, their third album, lends credence to comparisons to Pavement, Wilco (et al), early Beck and even, ahem, Jane’s Addiction, but that hardly hits the whole mark. They have mostly been greeted by the local press with a collective yawn. Why? Because the flash in Pitchfork and the other rags didn’t come out until some locals had already written their lukewarm reviews. They didn’t know what to think. Now they do.
Blitzen Trapper are a lot more important than all that. They embrace whole decades of American music with their sound- a West Coast chakra-warping melange of country rock, folk, bluegrass, rock, altrock, altcountryfolkrock and Southern boogie rock. Meaning, given the opportunity, they pretty much touch all the bases. Neil Young comes to mind. Those familiar with the early, pre-”Workingman’s” Dead- before the band “made it” and ruined themselves- would recall that, at that time, the Grateful Dead were a thoroughly enjoyable experimental rock band, whose classic albums “Anthem Of The Sun” and “Aoxomoxoa,” their second and third albums, respectively, were high water marks in the flood of new music that besieged the American popular music basin in the late ‘60s. If nothing else, Blitzen Trapper mirror that same spirit of freeform experimentation- coupled with complete respect for the manifold musical idioms they embrace and a decided musical step forward into the 21st century. Yikes!
“Blitzen Trapper are, or should be, the darlings of the Portland music scene. They have become the darlings of Pitchfork magazine and other influential national Indie music rags, Why? Because they’re fucking great, that’s why!!!”
According to guitarist/singer Marty Marquis, band mastermind Eric Earley “plays everything and is basically God’s Own Bard.” It is reputed that Earley pretty much recorded this album by himself, in his abandoned railroad car/makeshift studio, or some such. Oh, I’m not making this shit up. Salem boys all, except for Marty, who grew up in Yakima, the six-piece band began to coalesce around 2000, playing various gigs and releasing several recordings under a variety of names. Finally, in 2003 the band self-released their eponymously entitled first recording to modest acclaim. Certainly there are nuggets to be found on that album, including the infectious rocker “All-Girl Team,” the Gram Parsons informed country of “Reno,” and the jaunty folk of “Ansel and Emily Desader.”
Their second album, “Field Rexx” appeared a year later, yielding a similar lo-fi collection of approximately fifteen songs, including the oddly catchy “Lux and Royal Shopper,” the Parsons/Young informed charm of “Concrete Heaven,” the pretty, lilting waltz of “Dreamers and Giants,” and the aforementioned unbridled early Dead-ica of “Leopard’s Will To Live” and “Country Rain.” Though this new album was completed last September, its release was delayed by talks between the band and several major Indie labels. Those negotiations eventually fell through. Though shortly after the release of this groundbreaking album, the band signed with SubPop to record their next. So it’s off to the races, on a seven year fast track, for Blitzen Trapper!
With the tranquil cover benignly portraying a hawk at autumn dawn on a river in the Cascade- the first number “Devil’s A-Go-Go,” comes stumbling in like a drunk after an all-night binge, the drums stumbling dumbly at first, before locking into one of the weirdest cool rock songs you’ve ever heard. As if the dead recorded a band with the Mothers of Invention (which they probably should have). The dramatic Espagnole-laced middle section makes no sense at all. That’s why it’s so great!!! The title track harkens back to “Harvest” era Neil Young and others of his ilk from that period. Catchy- though in no way representing what Blitzen Trapper are about, musically. So just what are Blitzen Trapper about, musically?
“Band mastermind Eric Earley ‘plays everything and is basically God’s Own Bard.’”
Whew! That’s a big question. Listen to the next song, “Futures and Folly” and you would think these guys cut their teeth listening to XTC all through the ‘80s. Probably not. In a recent Pitchfork interview, Earley, who Marquis says “writes and arranges 99% of the stuff,” claims not to have a music collection at all, save a couple of cassettes. He does, however admit to some familiarity with a couple of Neil Young’s early albums and Pavement’s third album “Wowee Zowee.” Beyond that, Earley contends he only listens to music to which he exposed by friends and other members of the outside world. One would think, with so few musical references in his domain, that Eric might be something of a “savant.” A tabula rasa, as it were. And that would, indeed, appear to be the case. Check out the ballsy, bluesy big-chord crunch of “Miss Spiritual Tramp,” followed by the somewhat “progressive” sonic bedlam of the instrumental “”Woof & Warp Of The Quiet Giant’s Hem,” with the hit-song precision of “Sci-Fi Kid” (vaguely reminiscent of Bad Religion’s (“21st Century Digital Boy”) trailing.
Hey, this Earley guy is all over the board. Uh-oh. This is hard for “we critics.” If, within the first three or four songs, we can’t settle on a some hole in which to jam a particular musical pigeon- we tend to get nervous and feel that we don’t know what we are doing (which we don’t) and that there is no raison d’etre, as it were (and it weren’t) for our continuing on. Well, this critic must continue on, if only to finish this sterling review!! So, anyway, “Sci-Fi Kid” is a catchy acoustic/electronic number that grows on you by about the third time you have heard it.
That brings up an important point about Blitzen Trapper: YOU CANNOT APPRECIATE THIS BAND WITH A SINGLE AUDITION OF THEIR MUSIC. There are other bands like this. Blitzen Trapper is one of them. If, after the third or fifth listen to one of their songs, you aren’t totally locked into what this band is doing- you are A) missing the musical point and B) in need of a Mariah Carey massage. Look up “off-kilter,” “quirky,” “eclectic,” “idiosyncratic,” and “odd” in the dictionary and there are photos of these musical rascals. Get used to it!!!