The Black River Killer EP is a mash-up record. Not that Portland indie-folk sextet Blitzen Trapper are straying into the DJ business. Rather, each song on the seven-track EP sounds like a direct combination of influences. Petty + Cash. Beatles + Dylan. Wilco + Radiohead. By transparently showcasing their influences, Blitzen Trapper manage to uncannily channel the signature sound of a plethora of other artists. Frontman Eric Earley’s strained, sincere, folksy ramblings situate him in a long line of latter-day Dylans, while his countrified storytelling evokes Townes Van Zandt. The EP, comprised of leftover and unreleased tracks, is a modest collection of more-than-pleasant folk that will easily satisfy fans between full-length albums. Nevertheless, by adhering to their influences so unbendingly, Blitzen Trapper fail to offer any truly exciting new substance.
The title track and standout opener, “Black River Killer” finds Blitzen Trapper simultaneously at their most derivative and most rewarding. On “Black River Killer”, a carryover from 2008’s Furr, Blitzen Trapper manage to sound like an imitation not only of genre progenitors Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, but the countless slew of bands that have continued to ape them. Like Two Gallants, the Felice Brothers, and A.A. Bondy, Blitzen Trapper conjure a dusty, “old west” ambiance, replete with sheriffs, saloons, and six shooters, leaving no cliché detail unmentioned (and all that before the harmonica kicks in on “Silver Moon”). Hearing contemporary Portland 20-somethings suspend grammar and slap on their best country accent to wax with apparent sincerity about “wardens” and “stealin’ me a horse” demands from the listener a certain willingness to play along. Granted, the merits of the song do emerge when you suspend disbelief—underlying the narrative is an evocative, guitar-picking melody, accompanied by surprisingly dark, effectual storytelling. That the song is derivative or inauthentic becomes far less objectionable considering how effectively it is done.
But there is a larger point: Blitzen Trapper, of course, intend to evoke a mise en scéne that is neither their own nor their listeners’, drawing instead on familiar collective cultural symbols and narratives. A rural, western fetishism has curiously persisted among the hip, over-educated, cosmopolitan young, and in this sense, Blitzen Trapper are another iteration of a larger fascination. Beards and Wrangler knock-off shirts dominate the wardrobes of the urban chic, and artists from Fleet Foxes to Conor Oberst have appropriated the Western aesthetic. While the phenomenon could be dismissed as superficial exoticism or a passing trend, there may be more substance to it than the term “fad” suggests. In a coldly massive global and digital culture, small-town provincialism can sound refreshing and nostalgic. Moreover, the lonely, traveling cowboy is a relevant and relatable protagonist in a modern culture that can be both nihilistic and meaninglessly violent. Earley’s musings hit the mark when he sings, “I’ve been wanderin’ in the dark about as long as sin / But they say it’s never too late to start again / Oh when will the keys to the kingdom be mine again?” The road serves as an apt metaphor for a journey without particular purpose, with the isolation of the desolate west the perfect backing. The resurgent popularity of western mysticism, then, may be more than just a symptom of a culture insatiably hungry for references, it may be genuinely fitting.
Although the entire EP has an organic and woodsy feel, Blitzen Trapper dwell less literally on the western motif during the rest of the album. While the remaining six tracks are neither as catchy nor polished as the title track, they offer some worthwhile lyrical content and musical twists, more subtly evoking the rustic desolation the group aims for. For instance, Blitzen Trapper often add unexpected electronic flourishes to otherwise earthy tracks, and strangely, it usually works (“Black River Killer”, “Preachers Sisters Boy”). Blitzen Trapper also vary the tempo across the album. “Shoulder Full of You” offers sleepy and earnest balladry recalling Cat Stevens or early Coldplay. In contrast, “Silver Moon” is a foot-stomping, harmonica-flecked rocker that unfortunately features a chorus that is repetitive and ultimately annoying (“Oh, what a silver moon” repeated ad nauseum). Unfortunately, Blitzen Trapper again overexpose their influences on “Going Down”. Perhaps aiming to sound somewhat like the Beatles, they instead overshoot and sound exactly like the Beatles. Blitzen Trapper really let their beards down for closer “Big Black Bird”, jamming out with electric guitar hooks and group hoe-down choruses (Creedence, anyone?).
Collectively, Black River Killer can at times be eerie, melodic, and intimate. It can capture feral sing-alongs with the moon, quiet moments beneath the sheets, and lonely wanderer’s musings. But Blitzen Trapper could perhaps take unlikely advice from mash-up maestro Greg Gillis (“Girl Talk”), who shows that quality source material can and should be recombined to create a work that feels altogether new. Hopefully, on Blitzen Trapper’s forthcoming LP, the band will challenge themselves to extend into new territory beyond the sum of their influences.