It’s always a bit unfortunate to open a review of a band’s new album by talking about it’s prior. Unfortunate, yes, but in Blitzen Trapper’s case, inevitable. After being propelled to indie fav-status after “Wild Mountain Nation’s” title track and it’s sugary slide captured the ears of the wider public outside the indie incubator in Portland, Or., its sucessor is now subject to all the endless comparison-mongering of expectation.
If some of us weren’t caught quite so off-guard by Blitzen Trapper’s breakthrough, “Wild Mountain Nation” it’s because it didn’t differ all that much from its predecessor, “Field Rexx.” Both are enjoyable, if spastic records of ebullient pop. Both come wearing the kind of alt-country on their sleeves the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Wilco’s “A.M.” But that’s not what polarizes BT’s listeners. Rather it’s their exhaustive stlyistic pace, in which it sometimes seems 100 songs have been crammed into something just under 3 minutes. In my case, BT are a much-loved case of hometown hit-or-miss. Wild Mountain Genre Mashing had about a roughly 70% hit rate for me. In the end, I actually “re-made” the album using a playlist collecting all my favorites and removing the songs I found grating or obnoxious. Even if they do make interesting experiments in genre, sometimes I’m just simply “not in the mood.” As such, WMN could be said to be an album of great moments, but not at all cohesive. On their Sub-Pop debut, despite being recorded in snatched moments between relentless touring, Furr finds BT slicker, smoother, and more focused, if less courageously genre-blurring.
Certain core elements from WMN do carry over, nonetheless. Songwriter Eric Early’s primary lyrical themes remain heavily pastoral. Just like WMN, Furr’s title track shamelessly celebrates “the wild.” Though this time around, rather than making some kind of hippie-commune, BT tell the story of a man who becomes a dog (“or a wolf to be exact”) who becomes a man again, then lives happily ever after on a farm. Transformation and metamorphoses are an appropriate theme for a band that never can seem to decide what type of music they’d really like to play. There seems to be an almost continual free-associative identity-mashing happening throughout Furr. Early makes multiple claims in a given song, often in the same breath. In the title track, despite already having turned into a wolf, he also croons, “I’m a rattlesnake, babe, I’m like fuel on a fire.” Oh and by the way, he’s also, “a moonwalking cowboy.”
Stylistically, Early sticks to his alt-country guns, to great success. In The title track, “Black River Killer,” “War on Machines,” “Stolen Shoes & a Rifle,” BT capture the sound that manages to be more uniquely and enjoyably their own rather than manic pastiche. And this time around, paring down the sheer number of styles stuffed into each track has made BT not just more accessible, but also much more cohesive. Furr adds a solid consistency to BT’s songwriting, giving us something that works better as an album than as a couple runaway singles. The trade-off there being that nothing on the album sticks out quite as arrestingly, as infectiously fresh as some of the best tracks from WMN. There’s still a really diverse sonic landscape here, from the screaming crawl of “Love U” to the tender balladry of “Not Your Lover,” it just feels a lot calmer, more carefully and purposefully constructed. Whether or not this is a positive step will depend on whether your favorite thing about Blitzen Trapper is their slackadaiscal whimsy, or their sugary sense for melody and knee-slapping composition.