You know how the music of classical composer Aaron Copland is indelibly linked to panoramic imagery of American life in the 20th century? I can’t help but sense a similar sort of jingoist pride when I listen to Portland’s Blitzen Trapper. Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not setting out to argue that songs like “Wild Mountain Nation” or “Sleepytime in the Western World” are deserving of the same legacy afforded to Fanfare for the Common Man, but there’s little denying that a pioneering sense of wanderlust is pervasive in the work of both parties. 21 years after his death, Copland’s lush orchestrations and sprawling harmonies continue to evoke the gumption and playful spirit of the American people. If someone in today’s indie scene can stir up those same sentiments with more verve than Eric Earley’s folk-rock quintet, I haven’t heard ‘em.
Blitzen Trapper’s been around for nearly a decade now, but it wasn’t until the band’s signing with Sub Pop for 2008’s Furr that they settled into the jangly roots territory where we find them today. Critically adored, the album evoked a gutsy backwoods aesthetic and highlighted Earley’s unabashed love of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Gram Parsons. It could’ve been a derivative affair with such obvious homage to country rock’s luminaries, but the album’s calculated balance of raucousness and reverence kept claims of plagiarism off the radar. Since then, the five-piece has established itself as a steadfast source for rollicking, impassioned jams that, while rarely pioneering, have the uncanny ability to evoke many of this country’s most cherished idiosyncrasies.
In case their nationalist slant wasn’t obvious before, Blitzen Trapper’s sixth and latest album should set the record straight. American Goldwing is the sound of a band keenly aware of what it does best – namely, spinning out golden-hued rock music that flows as effortlessly as amber waves of grain. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, these songs are instantly gratifying works of beauty that pulse with vitality and beg for your attention while deliberately sidestepping any vanguard urges. In other words – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“Might Find It Cheap” opens the album with a palpable midtempo swagger and pearls of wisdom from Earley. “You might find it cheap / but you’re never gonna find it free,” he sings in a sandpapery tenor over bluesy guitar riffage. “Fletcher” picks up where “Cheap” leaves off, pairing acoustic guitar strums and fuzzed-out leads with bar-room piano harmonies and references to the titular character’s hooch swilling habits.
As the album progresses, other instrumentation comes to the fore, reinforcing that same ruminative American spirit found in Copland’s orchestral scores. The tender affectations of “My Home Town” are realized through adroit use of the banjo and harmonica, while “Girl in a Coat” makes use of lush mallet percussion timbres and harmonica solos to elicit a reflective, soul-searching atmosphere. “Taking It Easy Too Long” makes good on its name, utilizing fragments of slide guitar and Earley’s downtrodden lyrics (“There’s wasted hours / and there’s wasted days / I’m gonna waste a few more / if I get my way”) to imbue the song with its sauntering milieu.
It’s only on “Street Fighting Sun” that things come completely unhinged, as thunderous drumming and shards of amplifier feedback bring on a cacophonic tumult. Aggressive and brash, the track is the only time we catch wind of a Zeppelin influence, particularly with Brian Koch’s Bonham-esque work on the kit. Stylistically, American Goldwing’s longest track would also fit well in anything from the Dead Weather or Kills catalogs.
It’d be too easy to dismiss Blitzen Trapper for choosing to release an album that more or less stays inside the lines, opting for convention over innovation. Yet, with American life in the 21st century being so frenzied, it’s oddly comforting to listen to a record that doesn’t challenge you to keep up with it. Trying to maintain pace in our culture today can feel like an intimidating charge; American Goldwing aptly invites you to move at your own cadence.