Portland, Oregon’s Blitzen Trapper have never been able to sit still. After their first album of relatively straightforward, if a little oddball, folk pop, their next two albums — Field Rexx and Wild Mountain Nation — found them going wild. Both albums were full of eccentric tracks, genre-hopping from country waltzes to lo-fi indie rock to folk ballads to some unidentifiable mish-mash of these influences and more. They are a band that is always fresh and always exciting, but when they turn down the distortion and turn up the melodies, there is an Americana band hiding in Blitzen Trapper. Not one that fashions a pedal steel and sings about drinking and bar fights, but one more genuine than that. A band that sounds organic, that lets its influences bleed into its songs, rather than the other way around.
Furr, the new album, shows the band pushing their Americana side confidently into the spotlight. Rather than hop from genre to genre to create a sort of mosaic, Blitzen Trapper mines folk and country and roots rock and finds their common ground, while still reaching for the most out-there permutations of those sounds. The first two songs show how the band branches out, while still keeping the same thread moving. “Sleepytime in the Western World” is a giant, organ-soaked pop song, while “Gold for Bread” is a guitar-driven chunk of power pop. But if you strip away the many layers of both, they reveal themselves to be bouncy bits of ’70s southern rock.
But the band is hardly content to sound like stoned cowboys on every song. So while they visit that laid back sound often, no two takes sound the same. “God and Suicide” is a clean piece of acoustic pop and “Fire and Fast Bullets” is a more jangly, off-the-wall number, but both maintain the same country rock feel. These songs lay a solid base for the rest of Furr to wander off a little further into the woods, to find sounds slightly off the path Blitzen Trapper blazes early on the album without getting completely lost.
“Black River Killer” is a dusty take on an outlaw song, made all the more surprising by its placement in the album. It follows “Saturday Night”, a song that manages to channel the oft-forgotten — and more palatable — Odessa-era Bee Gees while also giving a half-nod to the band’s later full-on disco records. “Black River Killer” itself paves the way for “Love U”, which is perhaps the most out-there track on the album. While the title could be a mere nod to Prince, the song itself is an all-out bow to the leader of the Revolution. The shrieking vocals at the opening, the manic professions of love and big electric guitars, and the off-kilter blues feel of the track all add up to homage. It doesn’t necessarily sound like a Prince song, but its got enough soul theatrics to give away the influence, and to smartly include it an album that becomes more and more of an American Music history lesson the more it unfolds.
But under all of these different sounds, there have to be solid songs and memorable melodies to make it all work together. Well, Furr has more than its share of those. Where older albums would obscure the band’s natural pop knack with their experimentations, this album’s eccentricities bring it forward. “War on Machines” is a perfect piece of folk rock, and when Eric Earley sings, “I’m gonna catch you by the tail and teach you how to live”, good luck getting that line out of your head for the rest of the day. “Not Your Lover” is as affecting a piano ballad as it is infectious. And the title track, a stripped down folk song complete with harmonica, takes the raised-by-wolves tale and shows the narrator going from tame kid to wild child and then to settled-down adult beautifully in the span of four minutes. It may lack the band’s energetic strangeness, but the track more than makes up for it on flawless execution.
If Wild Mountain Nation was, for many, a strong introduction to Blitzen Trapper, then Furr will solidify them as the real deal. They are not the type of band to fade away after making that one weird album that the blogosphere latched onto. They have proven themselves too damn good for that. Furr is a brilliant and hard-earned combination of ambition and craft, two qualities albums rarely have at the same time in the oversaturated age of ProTools. They show us all the different ways music can go with just a few elements. And they show that country music isn’t always spelled with a capital ‘C’. Blitzen Trapper has made an album that makes us both question the limits of influences in American music, and reminds us why we love so many of them. Because a great song is a great song is a great song. And Furr‘s got 13 of them.