BLITZEN TRAPPER: VII (2013)
1) Feel The Chill; 2) Shine On; 3) Ever Loved Once; 4) Thirsty Man; 5) Valley Of Death; 6) Oregon Geography; 7) Neck Tatts, Cadillacs; 8) Earth (Fever Called Love); 9) Drive On Up; 10) Heart Attack; 11) Faces Of You; 12) Don't Be A Stranger.
Yes, we can: two years into the disappointing disaster of American Goldwing, Blitzen Trapper once again redo their image, and come out with an album that honestly sounds nothing like any of its predecessors — confirming our trust in Eric Earley as a musical force to be reckoned with, at least on a formal level. However, the change is somewhat bizarre. Without abandoning their roots-rock orientation, the band now crosses it with modernistic elements of hip-hop, trip-hop, and various electronic sub-styles. The result? Now they sound like lately-discovered children of Beck, which begs the question — are we finally past Eighties nostalgia, and advancing now into the age of Nineties nostalgia?
Seriously, at least half of these tracks might have been accepted as filler on Odelay or Midnite Vultures: swamp guitars crossed with dance beats, rapped vocals crossed with bluesy harmonicas, earthy country moods crossed with urban swagger. Most of the instrumentation remains live, and the album is hardly ever burdened with the stuffy digital overload of mainstream production, which is why the Beck analogy springs to mind before anything else — he, too, would always take time to bother that the songs sounded like advanced-updated variations on all their predecessors. The standard problem, however, remains: on individual levels, the tunes are not particularly memorable; not on a level, at least, where I could single out highlights and lowlights.
The overall sound is beyond complaint: even at his worst, Earley would always retain professionalism, and now that he's found a new old way to fool around, the band seems re-energized from the slackness of American Goldwing. On ʽFeel The Chillʼ, stinging electric guitars, tasty slides, banjos, organs, harmonicas, and whistling synthesizers generate an impressive polyphony, over which Eric's rapped verse vocals and nursery-rhyme chorus resonate with irony and humor. There may be a bit too much happening here to successfully latch on to a distinct hook, but this feeling of overwhelmed ear canals is quite strong in itself.
Then the second song, ʽShine Onʼ, comes on, and it's like... uh, okay. The time signature is ever so slightly changed, but other than that, we have the same electric riffs, slides, organs, harmonicas, rapped vocals... the song hardly ever makes its own point. ʽEver Loved Onceʼ follows at a slower pace, in a more sentimental mood, but other than fewer synthesizers and more slides, the difference is not that big, either, and seems to become less and less as the song becomes louder and Eric's singing gradually slides towards the same rapping style.
There is no need whatsoever to mention any of the other tracks until we get to ʽHeart Attackʼ: the last three tracks somehow manage to dispense with the «retro-modernistic» sheen and simply plunge us into pure archaic retro — ʽHeart Attackʼ is like an old-fashioned glam-rocker crossed with country elements, sort of a cross between T. Rex and the Flying Burrito Brothers; ʽFaces Of Youʼ is a gloomy keyboard-dominated blues-rocker; and ʽDon't Be A Strangerʼ ends the album with a bit of friendly fast-tempo acoustic bluegrass (the Avett Brothers do this kind of stuff sometimes, although this one does not quite have enough heart on its sleeve for Avett level).
Still, I give the album a light thumbs up. It is much less innovative than it seems to think it is, and the hooks take ages to sink in, if they ever do, and the «trendy-hopping on your country house front porch» vibe is already fully disclosed on the first couple of minutes — but at least they got some energy, some tact, some humor, and sorting out all these endless overdubs can also be fun, in a technical way at least. Rest assured, though, Blitzen Trapper VII is in no way poised to displace Beck from his properly guaranteed position of king of this particular mountain.
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