Reviews

Blitzen Trapper: Wild and Reckless (review)

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On their ninth studio album, Oregon's Blitzen Trapper keep things simple and rocking while adding some welcome conceptual touches.

What Portland, Oregon's Blitzen Trapper does is not particularly original, but they do it damn well. Their influences are seemingly all over the place – I hear traces of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Wilco, the Band, Bob Seger and even some Mark Knopfler in their sound – but the result doesn't come off as derivative. They are obviously fans and historians of rock and roll but manage to strengthen that combination of sounds with smart songwriting that's full of memorable hooks, expert musicianship, and rich atmosphere.



Blitzen Trapper

Wild and Reckless

(LKC Recordings)

Release Date: 3 Nov 2017

Wild and Reckless is Blitzen Trapper's ninth studio album, and while its origins make it seem almost too ambitious for its own good – several of the songs originated from the stage production of a “half musical, half rock-opera that dealt with heroin abuse, desperation, true love and western power structures", according to the press release – the result is a surprisingly unfussy, mostly unpretentious collection of American rock and roll. Furthermore, for a band whose early recording career saw them take a noisier, more experimental tack, Wild and Reckless, for all its alleged thematic cohesion, has a relaxed, uncomplicated maturity.

Album opener “Rebel" kicks things off with a confident, easygoing strut, and Blitzen Trapper checks off its first Americana requirement by name-checking Johnny Cash less than a minute into the song. The chorus drives home the concept of the love-struck loner: “I'm a rebel to the one I love / Her heart so far from me / Yeah I'm a rebel to the one I love / Just a man who's lost at sea."

The title track tends to continue along this same lyrical path, but musically, it goes from early '70s Neil Young piano into a driving, full-speed rocker. Blitzen Trapper excels at shifting gears, intent on keeping things interesting and eclectic. One of the album's standout tracks, “Joanna", is a stark folk ballad with Eric Earley's vocals accompanied only by acoustic guitar and harmonica. On its surface, the song sounds positively Dylanesque, but the atmosphere is more akin to Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen. The dark, haunting lyrics – told from the point of view of a young woman who enacts deadly revenge on the man who raped her – prove Earley to be a songwriter with a deep well of talent and a knack for novelistic imagery.

But then there's a track like “Dance With Me", a timeless, up-tempo tune that suggests a young John Mellencamp, complete with a simple yearning for a good time on the dance floor: “So baby dance with me / Baby dance with me tonight / Won't take no for an answer / Don't put up a fight." Meanwhile, a number of key modulations give the song a classic, sophisticated feel.

In keeping with the loosely executed “conceptual" angle of Wild and Reckless, a few somewhat experimental tracks are dropped into the mix. “Forever Pt. 1" is less than a minute of dreamy Beach Boys harmonies, strings and piano. “Forever Pt. 2" incorporates nebulous dialogue, retro '80s synths and vocal processing into its extended intro before settling into a quasi-psychedelic power ballad. “No Man's Land" is a wistful, spirited rocker that begins with tape loops and distortion. It turns out that Blitzen Trapper's experimental streak is still alive and well, although on Wild and Reckless, it's outnumbered by the more traditionally structured songs.

Although nods to technology – sampling, keyboards – come out of the woodwork throughout the album, it's essentially old-school rock and roll. The tight, Southern funk of “When I'm Dying" benefits from a warm, analog vibe, with Earley and lead guitarist Erik Menteer weaving twangy licks in and out of the song.

Wild and Reckless concludes with the majestic, anthemic “Wind Don't Always Blow." Earley's nasal crooning – in addition to the use of harmonica, Hammond organ and other more standard musical staples – approaches Dylan territory again, but the song itself tends to move further away from Bob's folk purview as it stretches out. The pulsing keyboards give way to gospel-flavored choruses and a full-on distorted, soulful guitar coda. “The world is made of lots of tears and lots of wasted time," Earley sings, “'Cause the wind don't always blow and the sun don't always shine." It can be a tough, unforgiving world. But Blitzen Trapper's music is a salve to heal the wounds.

RATING: 8

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Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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