Release Date: Sep 30, 2013
Record label: Vagrant
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Country-Rock
The menacing, gloomy backwoods that open Blitzen Trapper’s seventh album arrive without warning, a backdrop with the startling, dark allure of a horror film, crooked roads and deep, wild forest framing a narrative that just can’t end well. It’s the details of the setting that brings “Feel The Chill” to life for singer/songwriter Eric Earley. Striding along Earley’s quickly spat lyrics are a guitar riff that steals equally from funk and twang, harmonica blasts like cries for help and a disembodied organ, floating in on the wind.
On Blitzen Trapper’s seventh album, frontman Eric Earley tells bizarre tales set in old, weird America, a nightmarish backcountry populated by ghosts, gamblers, devils, drunkards and a crooked-toothed vixen with a neck tatt. The band sounds more polished than ever, especially when they shed their folk roots, but the funky riffs (“Feel the Chill,” “Drive On Up”) owe more to Songs in the Key of Life than Highway 61 Revisited. .
On 2011's Jack and Coke-infused American Goldwing, Blitzen Trapper ditched the pastoral Pacific Northwest luster of previous outings in favor of a more Southern-fried constitution, picking out the tastiest bits of Skynyrd and the Band and adding their own signature blend of mystic Americana and crafty, decidedly non-Portlandia indie folk-rock into the mix. Blitzen Trapper's Roman numeral-adorned seventh long-player adopts a similar disposition, but adds elements of countrypolitan and suburban hip-hop into the pot, seasoning their already heady brew with a little North Mississippi Allstars and Odelay-era Beck, especially on cuts like "Feel the Chill" and "Ever Loved Once," resulting in a sort of cosmic, high-def honky tonk that for the most part proves tasty, injecting some much needed brevity into windy frontman Eric Earley's colorful yet often perfunctory tales of sin and redemption. It's not all just Paisley Park meets Muscle Shoals-inspired mash-ups though, as evidenced by more measured and nuanced tracks like the soulful, gospel-tinged "Shine On" and the earthy, highway-bound closer "Don't Be a Stranger," but VII certainly finds the Oregon-based group jettisoning the more Dylanesque aspects of its sound.
Blitzen Trapper is having a pretty good year. The self-proclaimed can of Rocky Mountain Whoop Ass celebrated its 10th anniversary with a deluxe reissue of the band's 2003 debut, Blitzen Trapper, back in April and a month later, band multi-instrumentalist Marty Marquis released an all-synthesizer version of Ty Segall’s Goodbye Bread, a slant nod to Blitzen Trapper’s "American" melting pot of genres as well as a homage to Wendy Carlos’ 1968 experiment Switched-On Bach. Now they’re back with something like a return to form in their seventh full-length—and first for new label Vagrant—simply titled VII.
For a band who once, employed an unexpected and refreshing background synth line to the otherwise traditionally told Black River Killer, Blitzen Trapper’s recent efforts have just seemed so expected. After 2007’s excellent Wild Mountain Nation, 2008’s Furr, 2010’s Destroyer Of The Void and 2011’s especially disappointing American Goldwing saw the band trying to experiment, but falling into a sound, with no real desire to escape from it or provide any sort of variance. Their latest effort, VII, continues that trend.
Blitzen Trapper has always had one foot in the past. The Portland outfit’s last few albums alone have incorporated flavours of Laurel Canyon folk, Ozzy-era Black Sabbath and the mid-‘70s prog stylings of Queen into songs of old-timey rural American concerns. At their best, the band have spun their disparate influences into something distinctively theirs, but, at times, they have also invited accusations of being excessively reverential or unoriginal.
What immediately springs to mind when you think of Portland, Oregon? The natural majesty of the Pacific Northwest? The city’s status as unofficial US alternative culture epicenter? ‘Put A Bird On It?’ A bunch of deep-fried roots rock obsessives is not perhaps the first thing you might associate with the place. Having made their name with defiantly old-school Americana, you get the feeling that Blitzen Trapper are rather less concerned with microbreweries and fixed-gear bikes than the denizens of Portlandia. Blitzen Trapper aren’t about fads, or fashion, or the vagaries of modern tastemakers.
Blitzen Trapper has always defied description, a quirk they seem to enjoy and embrace. Though they’ve been loosely defined as Americana, they’re more than willing to diverge or digress, and with VII, those seemingly random whims continue to hold sway. While those that have followed the band from the beginning are probably already acclimated to their music’s usual twists and turns, they may still find themselves at a loss to absorb the blend of folk and funk evident on “Feel the Chill” or the peculiar attempt at rural rap on “Shine On” and “Oregon Geography.