A couple of years ago, I made a list of fifteen albums that I thought I’d be listening to for the rest of my life and posted the list on Facebook. The final slot was filled by Blitzen Trapper’s third album, Furr. One friend (who must have found the rest of my list unimpeachable) was skeptical that Furr could stay on the stage as long as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, or London Calling. At the time, I was probably listening to Furr more than any other album I owned, and was mildly annoyed by his objection, Facebook being what it is. Two and a half years later, I barely ever listen to it. Sorry, Josh.
It’s not that Furr isn’t a great record, or that Blitzen Trapper isn’t an excellent band. I still contend that there’s not really anybody else doing quite what they do. Sure, plenty of other groups blend country-rock with harvested noise and electronic quark (uh, Wilco, for one), but I’m still not certain that anyone else does it with so much joy. Furr, like Wild Mountain Nation before it, is as bright and open a record as you’re likely to find coming out of the Pacific Northwest, and that brightness expands Eric Earley’s melodies; the majority of Furr’s songs are thrust open like windows on late-summer days, with all the lackadaisical pickin’ and ‘a grinnin’ that image suggests. They’re just as adept at playing around with the American Beauty-era Dead’s stoney simplicity as they are aping Neil Young circa After the Goldrush, and, with the still-excellent “Black River Killer,” they wrote the prequel to Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” video, and over a rough sketch of that song, too. They’ve got that squealing mid-seventies country-rock lick thing down, too.
But I think what ultimately keeps me from picking up Furr more frequently isn’t so much how uncomfortably close it hews to its influences–nothing’s gonna stop me blaring “Stuck Between Stations” till my dying days–but rather its poor attempts to evade those influences. Blitzen Trapper are at their absolute best when they stand on the shoulders of the band who came before them. “Black River Killer,” “Not Your Lover,” “Furr,” and Wild Mountain Nation’s title track and “Country Caravan” all could have been recorded by another artist twenty-five years ago, but they weren’t, and so they’ve become classics (in my mind, at least) regardless of their inspirational pedigree; I’d love those songs no matter when they were written, and no matter who wrote them.
It’s not really fair to fault Blitzen Trapper for trying to set themselves apart, but the more complicated their songs become, and the more ideas they try to squeeze into insufficient frames, the less successful they are. “Sleepy Time in the Western World” cruises when it trusts those bottle-rocket leads, but it stalls out when it tries shifting gears. The problem’s a bit more obvious on side two, where “Echo/Always On/EZ Con” shifts from piano ballad to sound collage to dub over the course of three and a half minutes.
Though, the more I think about it, that’s not a totally fair criticism. While I do think that Blitzen Trapper are at their best when they’re at their most grounded, it’s not as though Furr’s deviations–Earley’s voice dropping into an envelope for the second verse of “Fire & Fast Bullets,” for instance–aren’t saved by its natural charisma. Maybe I’m looking for an aesthetic reason to explain away the fact that pop music isn’t as timeless as I’d usually like to believe; maybe I’ve worn Furr down and used it up through repeated use.
Most likely I just want to win that Facebook argument.