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Blitzen Trapper

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  1. 1.
    Furr
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  2. 2.
    Black River Killer
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  3. 3.
    Thirsty Man
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    Lady On the Water
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    Wild and Reckless
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Borne from the fires of psychedelic experimentation merged with folk-rock and grunge in the early 2000s, Blitzen Trapper emerged on the Portland, Oregon music scene with its eponymous release in 2003, released on homegrown label LidKerCow.
Consisting of Eric Earley (the group’s primary singer and songwriter), guitarist Erik Menteer, drummer Brian Adrian Koch, bassist Michael Van Pelt, guitarist and keyboardist Marty Marquis, and keyboardist Drew Laughery, the albumBlitzen Trapper distilled the group’s proggier elements and focused on country funk and folk, carving out its singular identity from the start. Songs like the Johnny Cash-meets-The Kinks “Reno” and jugband hoedown “Whisky Kisser” established the band’s willingness to keep stretching the limits, while “Texaco,” a lovelorn finger-picking ballad with three-part harmony, pointed toward the future toward which the Blitzen Trapper was heading.
 
While the record received a blurb in Pitchfork applauding the band’s “rustic perspective on popcraft,” Blitzen Trapper failed to gain much traction. Undeterred, the band released their second album through LidKerCow, Field Rexx, in 2004, with a higher profile and more acclaim. The album marked a return to the more experimental music the band was making before they were Blitzen Trapper. Distant harmonicas, deliberately muddy sound, and spoken-word segments crop up at odd angles to more polished pop numbers like the breezy “Asleep for Days” and the two-guitar country-rock jam “Moving Minors Over County Lines.” Pitchfork paid more attention this time, giving the record 7 out of 10 stars, calling it “an earnest crack at bluegrass, country, and folk that's young and brazen enough to incorporate elements from multiple genres.” 
 
While Blitzen Trapper and Field Rexx had been informed by Earley’s surroundings and Portland heritage, Wild Mountain Nation dove deep into the mythological sweep of the Pacific Northwest. The album’s title track stands a statement of purpose, a soaring rock-and-roll declaration of what the band is and what it can be, Blitzen Trapper’s ur-song weaving Oregonian legend, history, and prognostication together as the band’s first true epic.  Pitchfork responded exuberantly over the record, labeling it “Best New Music” and enthusing, “Compared to their previous albums, Wild Mountain Nation has a newfound and audible confidence.” Other critics began noticing, too, including Rolling Stone, who named the title track one of the 100 best songs of 2007. On the strength of the record and the critical acclaim, indie label SubPop signed the band for a three-record contract.
 
In late 2008, Blitzen Trapper’s label debut, Furr, was an almost immediate critical and commercial smash, defined by the incongruity of its bizarro subject matter and its accessible and hooky pop-rock musicality. The title track is a back-to-nature number about a city boy who shapeshifts into a wolf when he hears the call of the wild; “Black River Killer” is a noirish first-person account of a serial murderer; “Not Your Lover” is an anti-love song that doesn’t ask us to sympathize with the narrator. It’s an offbeat album masquerading as a crossover record, and it gained the band its biggest acclaim to date. Rolling Stone did an exposé on the band and SubPop sent them on tour with the Fleet Foxes. They appeared at Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Bonnaroo, and on TV on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. During the tour, SubPop rereleased a 5-song EP the band had been selling at their concerts, adding the song “Black River Killer” to it; the EP hit the Billboard “Heatseekers” chart.
 
Furr’s follow-up, 2010’s Destroyer of the Void, moved the band forward while also looking to the past. Newly remixed, unearthed songs from pre-Blitzen days like “Sadie” and “Lover Leave Me Drowning” easily cohabitated with the new songs, including the wildly ambitious title track. “Destroyer of the Void” opens with Beatles-esque three-part harmonies and harpsichord, becomes a searching piano-based love ballad, and morphs into a guitar-attack hard rock song before settling back into itself. It’s the prog-rock experimentation of the band’s early days with the messy edges sanded down. Nearly every song here – the wistful, mystical “Below the Hurricane,” the country funk number “Evening Star,” the crunchy “Love and Hate” – all feel suitably epic, with barely room for a breath until the “Texaco”-esque “Sadie” to close the record. Following the tour for Destroyer, founding member Drew Laughery left the band, making Blitzen Trapper a quintet.
 
Blitzen Trapper’s final SubPop album, the more personal American Goldwing (2011), represents a creative high-water mark for the band. Picking up narrative threads first explored in Furr, Eric Earley finds renewed fascination in the inner- and outer-spaces of people. The title track is a rallying back-to-nature call in the same manner of “Wild Mountain Nation,” but the Americana sweep of that song has transmogrified into mid-tempo rock and roll; it’s the same rediscovery of America, but now we’re doing it on the back of a bitchin’ motorcycle. “Astronaut,” a Gerry Rafferty pastiche, finds humanity in the band’s spacy side. The country stomp of “Fletcher” is like Flannery O’Connor with slide guitar, the joyousness on its surface betraying the dark, angry character sketch underneath. “Love the Way You Walk Away,” the band’s best song, is perhaps Earley’s most personal, with underscored banjos and soulful harmonica, about the hell of missed chances. It all rounds out to Blitzen Trapper’s most cohesive album to date.
 
With 2013’s VII, the band jumped labels to California-based Vagrant Records, and started exploring their funkier side; Earley referred to this new direction as “hillbilly gangster.” Bass-driven and slinky, songs like the death elegy “Feel the Chill” and the darkly erotic “Thirsty Man” eschew most of the country from country funk. The sound effects-laden hick-hop of “Oregon Geography” melts into the banjo-backed rave-up “Neck Tatts, Cadillacs.” “Shine On” approaches gospel-rock; “Faces of You” explores Santana-eque keyboard chill. While much of Blitzen Trapper’s prior work pointed the way toward the sonic exploration of VII, it remains the band’s most unexpected record, proving that even seven albums in, Blitzen Trapper can still surprise and shock.
 
All Across This Land, the band’s final album on the Vagrant label, was released in 2015, representing another shift in direction for the band. The title track’s big guitars, Steve Miller “woo-hoo”s, and an indelible instant-classic riff in the chorus mark a new statement of purpose. After playing in any number of rock genres, here Blitzen Trapper attacks rock and roll head on, approaching arena rock in the opening two-pack of “All Across This Land” and “Rock and Roll Was Made for You.” The rock sounds of the 1970s – sometimes mellow, sometimes bombastic – are at play throughout this album: the classic California sound informs “Love Grow Cold” and “Lonesome Angel”; the Springsteen pastiche “Cadillac Road” roils in subdued anger; the driving drums and sprightly synths of “Nights Are Made for Love” are dripping with pure AM radio nostalgia. It’s a new sound but a familiar feel for a band who has been making music approaching this directness for its entire career.
 
Working in the All Across This Land style allowed the band to attempt a musical, a rock opera called Wild and Reckless that debuted on the Portland Center Stage in early 2017. Featuring a passel of new rock songs (as well as classic songs “Black River Killer,” “Astronaut,” and “Below the Hurricane”), the show was set against an apocalyptic, drug-fueled backdrop in which Earley narrated and most of the band had featured roles. A companion album of only 1,000 copies was sold only at the show. In September of 2017, the band announced that an expanded version of the album with slightly reworked lyrics would hit stores that November, on their very own LidKerCow label. Songs like the deviously bouncy “Love Live On,” the reggae-tinged “When I’m Dying,” and the suitably grand finale “Wind Don’t Always Blow” – held aloft by the band’s signature three-part harmony – signal the band’s deeper and wider understanding and exploration of 1970s American rock tropes. Not content to simply rest on what made All Across This Land work, Wild & Reckless expands its vocabulary, finding new stories in narratives and character pieces – see the drug-dealing policeman’s son in “Rebel” – and in the Queen-esque vocal experimentation of “Forever Pt. 1.” A two-month barnstorming tour followed. - Kevin Quigley

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