I’ll make no effort to hide my love for a band from Portland, Oregon, called Blitzen Trapper. In fact, I’d go so far as to call them my favorite band. Their music has followed (and in some cases, guided) me over the course of the last decade. My infatuation with Blitzen Trapper started in late 2007, with my now brother-in-law Dylan handing me a copy of Wild Mountain Nation.
Wild Mountain Nation is a weird and unfocused album in the very best sense. It navigates the backroads of The Band and the Grateful Dead with aplomb, and the diversity in its musical stylings make it a real treat for the receptive listener.
After WMN, Blitzen Trapper reached their critical peak with the release of Furr. Rolling Stone raved about it, and it’s worthy of the praise. A more focused brand of eclecticism, Furr is a story-based album, with more than a passing vocal nod to Mr. Bob Dylan. It’s an intimate throwback to AM radio country-rock.
A few years later, they release American Goldwing, my personal favorite Blitzen Trapper album. For almost two years (2013-2014), it was pretty much the only thing I listened to. The narrative strand of the track “Fletcher” alone is worth the price of the album, with the song following a character in the back of a car “drinking whiskey from a jar through his teeth.” I could go on (and on and on) about this album, but it’s probably best just to say that it’s the last great thing that Blitzen Trapper has done.
Since American Goldwing, the band has pretty much stuck to the same formula as the three albums I’ve just listed, which is part of the problem. With most bands, there’s a strong urge to see them not evolve too much. For instance, I’d pay a considerable amount of money to see The Strokes put out an album that treads the waters of Is This It or Room on Fire.
For Blitzen Trapper, though, it’s to the point of me needing to see an evolution that, to this point, hasn’t really taken place. Their work on VII and All Across This Land was fine but, even for a band that traffics in the past, a bit too much of a retread. I liked them, but I’m pretty much a fan no matter what. Basically, those albums aren’t what I’d recommend to others looking to get into Blitzen Trapper.
Which brings us to the just-released Wild & Reckless. In a fairly unusual backstory to this album, this set of tracks came to life through a 28 date stage production the band put together in Portland earlier this year. According to the press release for that production, it was to be a “half musical, half rock-opera that dealt with heroin abuse, desperation, true love and western power structures.” From that, lead singer and songwriter Eric Earley took seven songs and then wrote a few more to create the resulting album. If all that sounds like a pretentious mess, you’ll be glad to know that it doesn’t sound like it. It’s a hell of a lot better than it sounds and way more fun. In short, it sounds like Blitzen Trapper evolving into a band that’s ambitious without forgetting what put them on the map in the first place.
Album opener and first single “Rebel” struts out of the gate like a long lost cousin to Furr‘s “Black River Killer.” It’s a tale of a man in search of the American Dream, only to find himself selling cocaine in the Hollywood Hills. With its acoustic strumming and Americana narrative, it’s familiar territory for Blitzen Trapper fans. For new fans, if you like this song, you’ll love Furr and American Goldwing.
The more experimental turn of the album begins with the second track, also the title track. “Wild & Reckless” turns a pickup-truck love song into a Bruce Springsteen rave-up. The song begins as an uncharacteristic piano ballad before a hard-charging chorus kicks in roughly 45 seconds into the song. Then, it’s party time as only Blitzen Trapper can do.
“Forever Pt. 1” (the 3rd track) and “Forever Pt. 2” (the 11th) are the most experimental tracks on the album, no doubt drawing on the stage production referenced earlier. There’s strings, robot voices, and I guess what I’d call Beach Boys-esque harmonies. It’s weird in a haunting and beautiful sort of way.
Speaking of beautiful, the next song, “Joanna,” is a sparsely arranged track with only an acoustic guitar and Earley’s voice. Telling the story of a girl who gets revenge on a man who raped her, Earley puts his skill as a songwriter to use:
One day I came out, and in the sunlight I stood
Told him to fuck off, boy, like no one else would
He took a fist full of my hair, and dragged me around
To the back of the trailer, and held me down on the ground.
If you don’t listen too closely to the lyrics, it’s easy to be lulled in by the music here. It’s not unlike some of Blitzen’s older material, but it displays a maturity that seems to be confidently newfound.
Experimentalism returns on “No Man’s Land,” as the song begins with a solid 1:20 of looped distortions and voices. After that, though, a Tom Petty type rocker emerges, creating an engaging experience overall.
After bogging down a bit with the forgettable “Stolen Hearts,” things rev back up with “Dance With Me.” If you’re a sucker for old school up-tempo John Mellencamp rockers, this is your new jam. It’s danceable, fun, and classic.
The next three tracks (“Love Live On,” “When I’m Dying,” and “Baby Won’t You Turn Me On”) are fine, but any Blitzen Trapper fan has heard them or some variation of them before. That doesn’t make them bad. They’re not. It’s just Blitzen Trapper falling back into some of the well-worn melodies of past albums. For newer fans, they might be a better listening experience. I won’t skip them when they come on, but they’re also not going to make any playlists. “Baby Won’t You Turn Me On” is probably the best of the bunch, but there’s nothing new here.
The album concludes with “Wind Don’t Always Blow.” I don’t think I’m overstating things to say that this is one of the stronger tracks that Blitzen Trapper has ever put to tape. It’s familiar, but, in actuality, very different from anything they’ve ever done. In short, it’s an encapsulation of everything I wanted this album to be. It starts with some spaced out jamming that, thematically, fits with some of the other pieces on Wild & Reckless. Then, a Dylan-inspired harmonica rolls in, accompanied by a well-placed keyboard and guitar. It’s a great way to end the record.
Wild & Reckless is a step in the right direction for a supremely talented, under-appreciated band. It’s not Furr or American Goldwing, but it does try to stretch the limits of Blitzen Trapper sonically while maintaining a connection to their previous works. In that regard, it mostly succeeds. If you’re new to Blitzen Trapper, give this a listen. It won’t be a mistake. Then, go back and listen to Furr and American Goldwing and fall in love.