[2 October 2013]
Blitzen Trapper has always had one foot in the past. The Portland outfit’s last few albums alone have incorporated flavours of Laurel Canyon folk, Ozzy-era Black Sabbath and the mid-‘70s prog stylings of Queen into songs of old-timey rural American concerns. At their best, the band have spun their disparate influences into something distinctively theirs, but, at times, they have also invited accusations of being excessively reverential or unoriginal. On 2011’s enjoyable American Goldwing, the band sounded very settled into their formula, by which things appear to have changed by the time they got to recording this seventh LP. Blitzen Trapper has attempted to modernise their sound while preserving their rustic appeal and, in short, they have failed.
To varying degrees, each song on VII comprises a combination of two main elements. On the one hand there is Trapper’s classic sound: banjos, dusty guitars and Eric Earley’s craggy voice all bringing to mind the British and American rock and folk giants of the ‘60s and ‘70s. On the other, there are a host of awkwardly placed sounds the band apparently associate with “new” music: hip-hop beats, faux-rapped vocals, and synthesizers. There is also an occasional tendency towards the inane repetition that so dominates 21st century pop, and even the occasional sound of record scratching. Particularly at first, it is a jarring combination of elements.
In cases such as these the inclusion of new elements will either work well and enhance the overall sound, or not work well and damage it. What makes VII so dispiriting a listen is that it is worse than that in this case – the “contemporary” elements do feel misplaced and alien, but they have also distracted Trapper to the extent that even their core arsenal has begun to misfire. Suddenly, following album after album of broad consistency, the band’s instrumentation has become less interesting, solos never quite spark, and only one song – the fairly back-to-basics Blitzen Trapper of old that is “Ever Loved Once” – even matches the weaker recordings on their recent efforts.
The area in which the album most falls short is the lyrics. Earley’s writing has always had a slightly hokey nature to it, but, for much of VII, it veers into truly hackneyed territory – the songs often amount to little more than a succession of tired clichés about dogs on porches and pick-up trucks. Among the worst culprits are the maddeningly repetitive “Shine On” and “Thirsty Man”, which digs up some of the most decrepit similes there are (“your love’s like rain in the desert to a thirsty man”). Add to this those bizarre efforts at a modernised sound and what results is the depressing spectacle of a once-great band appearing to parody themselves.
In fairness to Blitzen Trapper, VII isn’t all bad. While the songs almost never coalesce into anything as strong as even their last two albums – let alone 2008’s acclaimed Furr – there are often snatches of interesting harmonica and guitar playing, or the odd serviceable line from Earley. It is also worth noting that at more than a decade and seven albums in, Blitzen Trapper are perhaps almost overdue a confused, mid-career misstep of an album. Their admirable staying power up to now suggests they’ve a lot of life left in them, but in future they would do well to counter this blip by making the music that suits them best, not the music they feel they ought to make.