BLITZEN TRAPPER: FIELD REXX (2004)
1) James & Larry Earley; 2) Lux & Royal Shopper; 3) Love I Exclaim; 4) Summer Twin; 5) Cold Gold Diamond; 6) Concrete Heaven; 7) 40 Stripes; 8) Asleep For Days; 9) Dreamers & Giants; 10) Turkey In The Straw; 11) Dirty Pearls; 12) Leopard's Will To Live; 13) Country Rain; 14) Moving Minors Over County Lines; 15) Love.
The band's second album had an extremely limited budget, making the sound suffer: a little muddier and duller, but still, this is hardly «lo-fi»: wherever they recorded it, they made the best of whatever they had at their disposition. In fact, they even invented a certain pretext to justify the shoddier standards — parts of the album are introduced with snippets of archival recordings by a certain James Earley (could he be Eric's father?), singing bits of old hillbilly tunes. So that almost makes it into genuine «Field Rexx» indeed. In any case, whatever they recorded will inevitably sound much better than archive field tapes. Genius idea, no?
The good news is that the songwriting has not been impaired at all by financial troubles. On the contrary, Eric Earley is slowly, but steadily growing into a Renaissance man of pop music, spreading his nets far and wide and always successfully. Furthermore, Earley steadily continues to link his persona to that of Jeff Tweedy's: soulful and literate roots-rocker with an experimental drive and vast ambitions. If that already sounds awful, do not despair: the ambitions are not vast enough to prevent the man from abandoning archaic concepts like melody, harmony, rhythm, or even «rock and roll». On the contrary, the record is even more accessible than the first one.
ʽLux & Royal Shopperʼ, for example, takes a simple, effective garage riff and turns it into the basis for a small exploration that first takes us to the country (with a little backyard harmonica interlude), then into outer space, with classic psychedelic sound effects, treated guitars, and multiple head-warping overdubs. The other end of the record is symmetrically bookmarked with ʽMoving Minors Over County Linesʼ, the album's only other genuine «rocker», albeit with a country-pop whiff all the same — think Mike Nesmith or something in that vein.
In between we have some old-school pop-rock (ʽCold Gold Diamondʼ; ʽAsleep For Daysʼ, with the catchiest vocal melody on the album, wisely reproduced note-for-note in the solo in the good old Beatles tradition); some meditative country balladry with lazy harmonica and sentimental, but intelligent vocals (ʽConcrete Heavenʼ — with a bigger-than-ever nod to Tweedy); some banjo plunking tied to a well-imitated Southern accent (ʽDirty Pearlsʼ); a hipness-oozing novelty indie-pop number that would not be out of place on a Flaming Lips record (ʽLeopard's Will To Liveʼ); and some post-Woody Guthrie acoustic folk thrown in for good measure (ʽCountry Rainʼ). None of these songs are masterpieces on their own, but all of them are growers, and, if nothing else, almost each one boasts an ear-catching sonic combination of some sorts. On ʽCountry Rainʼ, for instance, you do not just get an acoustic guitar and a fiddle, but a Jew's harp as well plinking and plunking in the background. It needn't be there, but if it weren't there, attention would not be drawn to the song's melody nearly as much. Who wants to simply hear an acoustic guitar and a fiddle? Bring on the Jew's harp — and, for that matter, where is the «electric jug»?..
Another pair of tracks that bookmark the album is ʽLove I Exclaim!ʼ and its reprise, performed in a style that I could only define as «homely-funky», or, perhaps, as a deconstructed version of trip-hop performed with actual instruments, rather than pre-programmed. It's all novel, yet it provides the album with a «mutant anthem», a song that establishes an idealistic agenda and, by the way, prevents me from being able to recognize this band as «The Ween of the 2000's», as I have seen a few people call it. It took the real Ween more than ten years before they started letting us in on some of what was going on behind the Boognish mask; Eric Earley had no problem with that right from the start.
Hence, another thumbs up. The diversity of the styles and approaches here compensates for the relative lack of hard-rocking material (especially as compared to the self-titled debut): most probably, Field Rexx should be best enjoyed when «lazing on a Sunday afternoon in the summertime», to quote the classics, but all it takes is to properly synchronize it with one of those moods, and you will be taking a trip to Portland in no time.