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.
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.