[Sub Pop; 2008]
Blitzen Trapper's breakthrough album, Wild Mountain Nation (which they self-released last year), caught fire thanks, in part, to its eclecticism and try-anything-once spirit. The Portland, Oregon-based sextet poured twangy Deadhead jams, loose, do-it-yourself Pavement sprawl, muscular Lynyrd Skynyrd riffs, anachronistic synthesizer bursts, and scruffy Band melodies into a rangy collection that was as thrilling for its stylistic alchemy as it was for its infectious good vibes. Precisely what made it so beguiling, however, also made it slightly infuriating: there was no cohesion between all of the diverse yet charmingly shaggy tracks, each one representing a specific sliver of Blitzen Trapper's multiple personalities. It was a gripping mishmash, and it proved that its creators had an obsession with the sounds of the 1970s and a gift for ramshackle melodies. But it left curious listeners wondering who Blitzen Trapper really were. For their follow-up (and Sub Pop debut), the band has narrowed its scope, sharpening their focus, and the result proves they don't need to try so many different approaches when they've found one that works so well.
Furr, the band's fourth full-length, finds the six-piece giving in to their Basement Tapes urges. On acoustic tracks "Lady on the Water" and "Black River Killer", singer Eric Earley offers the most convincing Dylan vocals of this young century. And though the latter-- a gothic fugitive tale of sin, sheriffs, and stolen horses-- is bolstered by an unexpectedly spacey synth line, the former is the sort of sensual, stripped down song that Bob could have performed before he went electric at Newport. The band further pays homage to Mr. Zimmerman with the harmonicas they've spackled onto the title track's folky strummed tale of a wolfman's transformation and the spare, bittersweet piano hymn "Not Your Lover" (incidentally, the album's standout track).
Blitzen Trapper's more cohesive approach has yielded something that is becoming increasingly rare these days: An essential 13-song LP with no filler. There isn't an extraneous verse, much less a superfluous track here. Though they have more clearly defined their shambolic Americana this time around, they still show great range and unpredictability with their songwriting. The harmony-laden, 40-second pastoral coda to "Love U" and the entirety of the drawling, honeyed pedal-steel showcase "Stolen Shoes & a Rifle" make a convincing argument that the dominant sound of Sub Pop in 2008 owes more to the country-rock poignancy of CSNY than the label's punk past (see also: Fleet Foxes, Hardly Art's Moondoggies). The first two and a half minutes of "Love U", however, are a fuzzy, howling soup of reverberating guitars and jittery drum fills set amidst a molasses-slow dirge. And "Echo/Always On/EZ Con" pulls their organic, earnest sound into strange territory, bleeding a "See The Sky About to Rain"-like piano weeper into a brief, burbling mess of tech sounds that evolve into a funky disco strut. It is those sorts of unexpected flourishes that keep the album crackling with excitement and separate Blitzen Trapper from the rest of the bands that are trying their hands at a similar throwback sound.
It would have been hard to follow Wild Mountain Nation with anything as sprawling, expansive, or diverse, so Blitzen Trapper didn't try. Instead, they settled down, focused, and managed to create something even better. This imaginative, heartfelt collection is more intimate than its predecessor, reveling less in boundless stylistic freedom and more in the creativity afforded by structure. Blitzen Trapper are no longer talented jacks-of-all-trades, but a master of one, and Furr is proof that this already-great band gets even better as they define themselves more specifically.