[11 June 2007]
“There exist few days as blissfully insouciant as today.” This thought occurs to me as I open the Wild Mountain Nation CD case, and extract this, the third album by Portland, Oregon’s Blitzen Trapper. The faint smell of new plastic is carried off by the afternoon breeze as, somewhere in the distance, a sparrow sings and begins to take flight. “Yes,” I say aloud, pouring a glass of sherry, “there is good fortune in this album.” And indeed, sitting languidly on my chaise longue, I am treated to an exquisite aural delight. I grip my quill eagerly as I begin to listen to Blitzen Trapper.
Do I detect a hint of Jane’s Addiction in this opening track? Southern rock in the second? Might this third track not borrow a few tricks from the Shins? Ah, the Shins, another Northwestern band with musical roots in the southwest. As I ruminate on these parallels, I begin to realize that Wild Mountain Nation is indeed a rare gift—a music reviewer’s dream come true. For even the casual listener can name sound-alikes on nearly every track. And so interesting is each song that any could rightfully be called a single. Though the album shall most likely not make my top ten list for the year 2007, it is indeed a pleasant listen.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Blitzen Trapper is no chameleon. They do not simply ape the sounds of bands around them. Pay homage? Yes, very often. Yet there are some definite constants in their music, as well: First, it’s lad rock. There’s both boyishness and manliness in this music. Guitars are alternately fuzzed-out, whip-smart lick machines, or country-fried ballad boxes. Vocals provide apropos accompaniment. They meander from over-processed rock vox to soulful western crooning. One becomes fearful that the band may break out a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover at any moment.
Fear of this occurrence is temporarily exorcised by a number of academic minor-chord masterpieces. On several songs—most notably “Summer Town” and “Futures & Folly”—the group’s music becomes delicate and adventurous. These songs draw the easiest comparisons to the Shins. If not for a certain fullness of melody, “Futures & Folly” could easily have dropped off of Chutes Too Narrow.
“Futures & Folly” is one of the strongest songs on the album, but one of the least fun. Most of the album is composed of playful rock jams. Such tracks are unabashedly overblown. They succeed as textbook rockers, loud and bombastic, but also, incredibly tight. “Devil’s A-Go-Go”, the Jane’s Addiction-style romp mentioned above, gives nods to the Make-Up as it shimmies its way from start to finish. A similar song, “Miss Spiritual Tramp”, owes debts to a slew of Northwestern rockers, from Jimmy Hendrix to Pavement. The Hendrix comparisons resurface on “Murder Babe”, featuring some of the most virtuoso guitar playing on the album.
I am drawn now to the stranger songs on the album. “Warp & Woof of the Quiet Giant’s Hem”: You are a sonic cornucopia that defies explanation. Were I to play the climactic scene from Logan’s Run, would you synch up perfectly? “Sci-Fi Kid”: Are those ghostly sounds produced by synthesizers? Or is this more evidence of guitar virtuosity?
Wild Mountain Nation, I have made a new discovery. When I listen to you with headphones, the subtleties of your sound are writ large. “Wild Mtn. Jam” now seems more than a simple country yarn; a slew of instrumental sounds emerge from the background, some more comical than rustic. Exactly how many slide guitars do you employ? Indeed, it’s as though you are a headphone album that desperately seeks to be a boom-box album. How novel!
Must I find some fault with this album? I must and I will. It’s the words, B. Trapp. For much of the album, they’re either indecipherable or so far in the background as to be eminently forgettable. It’s as though they simply exist as window dressing for the music. This is a shame, because you’re capable of good lyrics. “Futures & Folly” tells a fractured fairytale of romance and community theatre. “Oh my love, I compare to a cloudless rain” could have been coined by Shakespeare. “Country Caravan” is composed of pastoral poetry. Why must this be the exception, and not the rule?
And now, as the day draws to a close, it’s time for me to make my grand judgment. How should I proceed? Blitzen Trapper, you romance my senses. Your mélange of homespun ballads and raucous anthems amuses and delights. It is as though you’ve written the soundtrack to some vivid western picaresque. We traipse merrily from snowboarding exhibition to drug-induced hallucination. Here, an excursion with a brash country maiden. There, a slow wagon-ride to Paw Trapper’s lodge. What joyful adventures! Though I may not understand you, I pay homage to your musical wit. Good show.