[12 October 2011]
From somewhere in Chicago, Eric Earley is relishing the aftermath of a glowing reception from last night’s Blitzen Trapper show. As crowds of people weave in and out of his hotel lobby, Earley talks about Blitzen Trapper’s recent spat of shows in select cities. “We’ve got a big tour in October and November,” he explains. “Our tour now is really short, just ten shows or so to try out the new material, mostly in the Midwest.” Those precious few shows have been the conduit for Earley and his band mates to test-drive their newest album on a mostly rabid fan base. And those fans have not been disappointed.
That album, American Goldwing, is Blitzen Trapper’s fourth album with Sub Pop and represents yet another creative benchmark for the band. The songs reveal a songwriter who has matured at a break-neck pace in crafting songs that are poignant, personal, and profoundly rocking. American Goldwing showcases a band that has tightened their arrangements and brought their songs into a sharper and more determined focus, with a precision reminiscent of the best of The Band, while lyrically Earley has found a way to convincingly meander along with the listener towards a point of profound discovery. “I wanted to keep things relatively simple on this record. Stripped down,” Earley explained. “The songs and the arrangements on this record are pretty straightforward. It’s an evolution of what I’ve been doing in the studio. I think Tchad Blake (the engineer who mixed the album in Wales) had a lot to do with the way the final sound came out, he really has a personality when it comes to mixing.”
The roots of the new album were born out of a personal time of reflection and struggle for Earley. “We went through a lot of touring with Destroyer of the Void and I got burned out. The album started off as a solo record and was personal in a lot of ways.” As explained in their press release for the album, the title is born from an actual event in Earley’s childhood that served as a vantage point of conflict and struggle for the writing of the record.
From the outset of the entangled and raunchy Furr-era guitars, erupts a melodic proclamation on burning miles in a weary world, with Earley declaring on “You Might Find it Cheap” that “you might find it cheap, but you’re never going to find it free.” It’s a suitable statement on this outing for Blitzen Trapper and is a recurring theme for the album; true personal discovery costs something, especially as you get more distance from your youth. In many ways, American Goldwing is a reflection on the past both lyrically, as well as musically. As Earley troves through the romance and wreckage of the past, he and the rest of the band unashamedly pull from an amalgamation of styles rooted in earlier eras. In a time where many Indie rock musicians turn their backs to the world of “classic rock”, Blitzen Trapper seem to relish in it, much like earlier punk pioneers The Minutemen wore their love of such music as a badge of honor.
“Street Fighting Sun” blends together heavy Black Sabbath riffery, as well as Ted Nugent-esque and James Gang guitars. Even the vocals bring back a strange reminiscence of the early Rush song “Working Man”. Likewise, the stand-out track “Fletcher”, which chronicles tales of hometown mischief, ties together sounds once found on tracks by the likes of Lynard Skynard; a heavy southern-tinged acoustic roots rocker, laden with a wah guitar sound that seems to have leaped right out of a Steve Miller Band song. Characters “talk to the western stars” while Fletcher is “drinking whiskey from a jar through his teeth”, one of the many iconic lyrical images which Earley says that he likes a lot because it reminds him of where he grew up. On the song “Astronaut”, Earley channels a classic a 70s era grand tale of space age escape in the mold of Harry Nilsson and David Bowie, replete with a dreamy stringscape and a soulful melody. “Astronaut is really fun, I like playing that one. It’s a really good piano ballad and it’s one of my favorites. It’s got an R&B thing to it. “
These sounds are not just Earley’s attempt to sound like the past, but instead they reflect his deep love for classic rock music. “It reflects the things I like to listen to,” Earley explains. “If you were to look at my iPod, you’d find a lot of 70s music, rock, and country music. I listen to a lot of guitar rock. On the road, I’ll put on something like Foghat or some Nugent. As I get older I go back to the music I listened to when I was younger. You can’t deny yourself. I think classic rock and rock and roll in general makes me really happy. I don’t think there are enough people doing hard guitar rock these days. Or at least they’re not doing it well with any imagination or maybe with heart. It’s a shame.”
Yet for all of its merits in re-igniting the powers of classic rock, the songs also pull in an undercurrent of Americana and a deep foundation of folk and bluegrass. “My roots are in acoustic and old time music. Old bluegrass and Appalachian music is what I grew up with, it’s what my father played,” Earley says. “I also like playing electric guitar, doing solos. I like to mix the two up.” One of the best examples of this on the album is the lo-fi country hoedown that opens “Your Crying Eyes”, the raunchy guitar rocker that infuses an early Big Star vocal against Deep Purple guitar dueling.
Tracks like “Love The Way You Walk Away” (replete with a Grateful Dead reference to the American Beauty classic “Brokedown Palace”), explore the loss of an object of yearning alongside a lonesome harmonica and a picked banjo. “When you find what you’re looking for, you want it less,” Earley sings. It’s that confliction of emotions in hindsight that makes the album a powerful narrative on midlife perspectives. There’s a romance of loss, but also the reflections of painful regret, a tightrope that Earley walked in the wake of a deeply introspective period. “It’s personal, about relationships I’ve been in. Breakups. I really like the record on a personal level, because it means something to me,” Earley says.
Earley spends considerable time returning to the places that formed him and re-examining his hometown from a different point of life. With an acoustic grace, akin to Tom Petty’s Wildflowers-era, “My Hometown” finds Earley much like Springsteen on his 1982 classic Nebraska, going back to the foundations of his childhood and looking at them with decades of living done. “Going back to where I came ... to my hometown take a look around,” sings Earley. In “Taking it Easy Too Long”, Earley reflects, “I’ve been taking it easy too long, sticking around this lonesome town, like a bird that just won’t fly, why can’t I just get over you.” Earley goes on to explain “That song is directly about where I grew up. You escape the town, but than you miss it because you’ve been gone for so long.”
Earley says that even though there are deep themes that it’s not necessarily meant to be a heavy album. “I don’t think it’s a somber record, I think it’s a more up record in comparison of the last one. It feels more lighthearted to me. A lot of it is tongue-in-cheek and about being a kid in rural America.” The last track, “Stranger in a Strange Land”, becomes a suitable summation for the entire album. “It’s about a specific relationship. Just wrote in a few minutes, whatever I was feeling at the time,” Earley says. “I write a lot of songs about death in general and that’s one of them. But it’s good to write those kinds of songs. It’s cathartic. Everybody’s got those kinds of feelings. Everybody feels like we’re strangers wherever we are on earth.”
In the end, that’s what makes the album connect with an almost painful amount of clarity and revelation. That as an adult looking back through the attics of one’s life, the hometown, the childhood friends, the house you grew up in; they are never the same in hindsight. As Earley himself discovers through the course of the album, nostalgia is a powerful force that, once pursued, inevitably reveals the ravages of time. American Goldwing is a telling album of journey and personal reflection, imbued with rock and roll fandom from a band whose trajectory of popularity has thankfully been equaled by their ability to continually produce albums of growing stature. Long may they run.
Josh Antonuccio is a music producer, studio owner, musician, and writer who lives in Athens, OH. He teaches Music Production and Music Business at Hocking College and is an Adjunct Instructor in Audio Production at Ohio University. You can follow him on twitter: @joshantonuccio or find him at 3elliottstudio.com. He currently plays with the band Scubadog.