Here we are with another one of my favorite albums, an album that has peaked at my personal number one and never dropped below number ten. In a better world (and you know I love to think about better worlds), this album would be as iconic as the White Album. In fact, I’d like to think we’d all call it “the Plywood Album.”
Blitzen Trapper, for those just tuning in, are an alt-rock band from Portland, Oregon. Now, for some of you, the combination of “alt” and “Portland” conjures ghastly images: stoned retro-hippies singing about weed; irritatingly precious hipsters in old-fashioned painter’s uniforms singing about how they still like 60s music; violent anarcho-punks being anarcho-punks… and so on.
Forget that. These six men*, for a shining period of three or four albums, were the rockstars’ rockstars. They had fantastic, undefinable music ranging from alt-country and bluegrass to crashing post-rock soundscapes, lyrics that nodded to the Grateful Dead or to Bob Dylan sometimes, but more often soared through imagined worlds even Rush and Yes never made landfall in, and they had old-school, likeable stage presence too. Frontman Eric Earley and multi-instrumentalist/singer Marty Marquis’ salt-of-the-earth working-man personas never felt forced, and did a lot to endear them to me. If they lost their way a little on the last two or three albums, I can forgive them because of my liking for them as a group, and for that three-album window starting with “Wild Mountain Nation” and ending with “Destroyer of the Void.” Hell, I even like individual songs from well before and after that period.
(*later five, after the departure of keyboardist Drew Laughery.)
In short, I love this band, enough that I would apply to be one of their roadies if I found myself unemployed and in Portland. They are one of the very few nationally known acts I’ve ever seen live, together with Sarah Jarosz, the Dave Rawlings Machine, and a handful of B-list in my three-and-a-half hours at Woodstock ’99. I even drove six hours to Atlanta to see them in ’16, even knowing that I didn’t like half the new material they’d be playing. It was on that drive, by the way, that I learned how Paul Simon felt on his drive through America with his young son to see Graceland, and it was on that drive that my son and I came to be rabid fans of the Avett Brothers, but that’s a different story.
I previously reviewed their coming-of-age album, “Wild Mountain Nation,” a little while ago, heaping praise on some songs while criticizing those that couldn’t decide on a genre or that went too far into post-rock experimentalism, concluding that the album was good but quite uneven.
Now we come to their next album, almost certainly their best-seller and best-received album and certainly their closest flirtation with mainstream success, Furr. It’s an album that never coalesces into a single genre, but in a way, it doesn’t have to, sustaining an even tone across thirteen wildly different songs in a way “Wild Mountain Nation” completely failed to.
The album opens with the blaring, Al Kooper-esque organ chords of “Sleepytime in the Western World.” Now, I’ll admit I can’t make out what this song is about. But it sure sounds nice, with a retro pop texture and very interesting lyrics that could be about a head trip, a bad dream or even sleep-walking. I can’t tell. I have to admit it’s not likely to win the band any fans right off the bat, but it’s top-notch b-side material, the kind of song I’d regularly use as filler if I DJ’d a college radio station. 6/10
“Gold for Bread” is just as psychedelic and even more cryptic, apparently the paranoid but somehow upbeat ramblings of a psychotic man on the run from the law. It might turn somebody on to the band, if only by its groovy semi-acoustic sound. It’s always been a little too similar to the preceding song for my taste, and honestly it would be more at home on “Wild Mountain Nation.” Again, I’d play it on air. 5/10
And then comes the title track, Furr, which certainly made me a fan of the band at first or second listen. The song opens with airy acoustic rhythm guitar that sounds like Dylan’s, but the lyrics are sung with a triple-time lilt peculiar to a lot of Eric Earley’s writing. It’s a ballad about a young man who runs off into the woods and gets magically transformed into a wolf, only to find his way back to humanity when he meets a beautiful girl.
Yeah, it’s Brothers Grimm material, but it’s also a sensitive treatment of young people living a wild lifestyle in order to find themselves before settling down. The effortless semi-nonsense mysticism of the chorus could have been handled badly, but somehow it works perfectly. The song as a whole is touching without being sentimental, and the acoustic guitar and tambourine formula somehow doesn’t grate. I’m not in love with the sampled wildlife sounds, but on the other hand, they’re not really hurting anything. Anyways, adding birdsong and forest sounds is a total ’60’s-era Pink Floyd move, so I don’t hate it. 8/10.
“God and Suicide” is an extremely brief number, with semi-nonsensical lyrics that seem to be about trying not to choose between religion and a worldly life. It has that kind of morbid, dark spirituality that I absolutely love in old blues and country songs, plus an “Heat of Gold”-esque backbeat. Considering that it’s clearly filler, I rather like it. 6/10.
Next is a song about the apocalypse and one of the album’s hardest and most psychedelic rockers, “Fire and Fast Bullets.” While far from my favorite deep cut on the album, I like it specifically because it marks the point at which Blitzen Trapper found the perfect balance between traditional hard rock and Sonic Youth-esque lo-fi experimentalism. The middle section with distorted vocals is perfect in my opinion, as is the line “to sit on upholstery and burning arise/as the fire starts falling and the fast bullets fly.” It’s also great live. 8/10.
Next is a brief, funky dance number driven by piano and electric piano, Saturday Nite [sic]. It sticks out of the album like a sore thumb, but somehow it works as a moment to catch your breath between two dark songs. I also love the synth solo. 5/10
Possibly one of their best known songs, “Black River Killer” is a folky, mostly-acoustic murder ballad sung from the perspective of a serial killer. That morbid religious tone I mentioned earlier is back in spades, with lines in the chorus like “oh, when, oh, when will the spirit come a-calling for my soul to send/oh, when, oh, when will the keys of the kingdom be mine again?” Honestly, if I had to pick my favorite song sung from the perspective of a serial killer, I’d find it hard to choose between this song and the acoustic version of “Psycho Killer” by The Talking Heads. The retro synth hook over bare finger-picked acoustic guitar is a piece of instrumental flair that only Blitzen Trapper could have written. 8/10
And next, Frontman Eric Earley decides to imitate one of his top idols, Neil Young. Not cool outlaw proto-grunge-singer Neil Young from the late 70’s, or the bizarre synth-savvy tech genius Neil Young of the early 80’s, nor yet green activist Neil Young from the 90’s and 00’s, but rather the Neil Young of 1969’s “After the Gold Rush,” the dorky, creaky-voiced Neil Young who played piano more than guitar and sung about silver spaceships.
The result, stripped-down ballad “Not Your Lover Anymore,” is a song with a simple message: “In my sleep I’m not your lover anymore/when I’m dreaming I could be anyone.” It’s not a breakup song, and it even tries to convince itself it’s not a breakup song. Nevertheless, it sounds like an overture to a breakup or a veiled confession of infidelity–the singer is hers when he’s awake, but in his subconscious, he’s moved on or worse, he never knew her. Somehow the bald imitation of Neil Young’s sound is fitting, as the song reads as a layered piece of falsehood. And like no other Blitzen Trapper song, it has the world-weariness of a Neil Young song. It’s not a bad song. 6/10.
Next, in one of the biggest genre leaps in recording history, comes a sludgy, doomy post-rock song called “Love U,” which begins with Earley shouting “I love you, baby, like a thief loves money,” and gets stranger from there. I have no idea what it’s about, but somehow, it maintains the continuity of the album, even with the vastly different song immediately before it.
It’s the worldview, I think. Eric Earley seems to see the world in different colors, as though he knew that we live in an older and stranger world than most of us ever know. Sometimes I’m driving down a certain section of a Mississippi state highway, and I see the grandeur of a long stretch of timberland that has, within my son’s lifetime, reclaimed the name “forest” and then earned the name “jungle” in one steady motion, slower than the moon, and then, especially if it’s summer and the sun is beating down like a constant Hindustani drone, then I know that man is young and that much is unknown. At these moments, I think I could or rather would write like Eric Earley and Marty Marquis (who seems to be his regular writing partner), though this is a massive overestimation of my abilities. It is this desire for true sight that made me a photographer, and more to the point, it is the ability of music to change my view of the world that has made me a musician and an obsessive music lover.
In “Love U,” and throughout the album, Earley employs these little turns of phrase, some of them hinting at religion and some of them hinting at mysticism, that tell us we’re no longer in the nine-to-five, matter-of-fact human world, and in fact, make us feel that that world is merely comfortable ignorance. “God speed us home with fire and storm,” from “Love U,” sounds to me like a vague allusion to the columns of fire and cloud that led the Hebrews on in the book of Exodus, but more than that, it evokes the elemental forces of the world in this pseudo-religious way. It reminds us, or me, at least, that we do not fully understand fires or storms, and are barely capable of controlling the former, let alone the latter, being but children in an old world. It’s the same with the line about “the ancient, distant flow” in the title track.
And so, while hardly my standout track from the album, “Love U” introduces us to the last few songs on the album, marking the point at which we have firmly left the human world behind and returned to a more primal world. 7/10.
“War on Machines” is next, a throwback to “Wild Mountain Nation“‘s sound, to be sure, but quite at home on the album. It’s a hard, bass driven rocker. The lyrics are as cryptic as ever, but it sounds like it’s about going home in the evening to your girl, ready for love. Do note that, when rock and roll was invented in 1936 by three old blues singers passing through my city on their way to Gulfport, in a makeshift studio in a skanky hotel we’ve since demolished, it was already about that.
Here, Blitzen Trapper take this age-old trope out on the porch and beat the dust off of it real good, with lyrics that are good from beginning to end. The singer compares himself and his lover to tigers, calls the world a dry riverbed waiting to flood, and talks about the night “breaking out like a fight.” There isn’t a line here I don’t like, and the music sounds as primal and natural as the lyrics, like a threesome between Morphine, the Allman Brothers and the Sonic Youth. 9/10
Next, without breaking the tone or the flow, Blitzen Trapper play perhaps the nearest thing to a straight country song in their repertoire (a repertoire which includes a whole country album), with “Stolen Shoes and a Rifle.” It’s a slow, fingerpicked song with a lot of acoustic guitar and pedal steel, and it is about another of Eric Earley’s favorite subjects, a fugitive from the law, traveling in the wilderness. It begins, like “Ramble On” and like the Namarië, by announcing that it’s autumn, with the line “the weather’s like feathers on fire,” a line which took me several years to analyze: I’ve weighed several interpretations and I conclude it means falling leaves in those fiery colors particular to only a handful of deciduous trees.
I don’t have much to say about this song, other than to say that if songs like Furr and “War on Machines” sketched in little corners of the primal world, “Stolen Shoes and a Rifle” stood in front of the canvas with brushes in its teeth and a wet palette and gave it colors, such colors. I compare the experience to that of watching Bob Ross paint an Alaskan mountainscape. 9/10.
The second-to-last song on the album, the three-part “Echo–Always On–EZ Con” is another piano-driven ballad and definitely a breakup song, perhaps a sort of coda to “Not Your Lover.” The singer laments losing touch with his ex, asking if all their love was is “an echo out in space.” This goes on for two verses and then the song breaks down into a strange, atonal soundscape known as “Always On,” before resurrecting after about ten seconds of that as “EZ Con,” a funky, straightforward instrumental jam where the band as a whole unwinds and lets loose the remaining musical tensions, as the final song is to be nearly a solo number on Earley’s part, with some help from Marquis.
“Lady on the Water” is the preeminent example of another odd facet of Eric Earley’s songwriting: his true love songs (at least, before he stopped trying) were always to a woman of almost mythical qualities, a woman that the singer wants to learn from or be blessed by. This peculiarity in his songwriting was apparent from the song on “Wild Mountain Nation” where Earley sang “Girl, I love your amazing ways/keep me honest, keep me clean,” and became even more clear in another song from the same album, where he sang “Baby’s got to praise like a river on the cusp/crashing through the levee, moving with a mighty rush.” It’s obvious here.
It’s a song that manages to be jangly and fingerpicked at the same time, with basically two instruments: guitar and melodica. (There is some low-key synth glow as well, I think.) In some of his more Dylanesque writing, Earley begs his lover for guidance, for mystical blessings, and for her faithfulness until the end of his natural life. One almost gets the impression that this period is to be a blink of an eye for her. Should Aragorn have written a love song to Arwen, I think it would have sounded much like this. 8/10.
I’ve done a dangerous thing here, reviewing an album that I have very few criticisms of. Obviously, I’m biased in favor of this album. Giving a whole-album numerical rating seems a little silly. Consider this painfully gushing review as a necessary installment of an ongoing series, as I document the rise and fall of Blitzen Trapper.
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