January 29, 2009
Blitzen Trapper | Furr
2008 | Sub Pop
Nothing about Blizten Trapper’s Furr surprises me. I’m not surprised that it’s tragically uneven, nor am I surprised that its gravest missteps are nearly un-listenable, nor am I surprised that its successes are revelatory and truly breathtaking. I’m not surprised because I’d spent time with Blitzen Trapper’s previous Wild Mountain Nation, which, I admit, I found so off-kilter and unbalanced that I could hardly give it a fair and thorough listen; I’m not surprised because I’ve read frustrating interviews with singer and primary songwriter Eric Earley which so effectively illustrate a unique and isolate songwriting voice, seemingly entirely disinterested in anything other than the expression of his own singular vision.
Furr can be fairly simply subdivided into three components: the folk songs (uniformly excellent), the inimitable Blitzen Trapper scrappy pop songs (which range from excellent to merely forgettable), and the perplexing piano ballads (which range from forgettable to abysmal). The folk songs – “Furr,” “Black River Killer,” and “Lady on the Water” – are both surprising and effortlessly flawlessly. Existing somewhere between Basement Tapes Dylan and timeless American songcraft, these three tracks are some of the most effective and beautifully constructed folk songs I’ve heard in ages. “Furr” and “Black River Killer” assume classic Appalachian songform (“Furr” is a fairy-tale concerning a feral prince, “Black River Killer” one of the finest modern murder ballads I’ve encountered), and “Lady on the Water” is, quite simply, a stunning lyrical love song. All three compositions showcase not only Earley’s tremendous abilities as a lyricist and guitarist but also the bands capacity for sparse beauty. All three songs must be heard.
The majority of the record exists in classic Blitzen Trapper Wild Mountain Nation territory: we’ve got scrappy, overdriven dueling guitars, the pounding and propulsive rhythm section, and Earley’s versatile vocals. Some of these songs are true successes. The albums opening track, “Sleepytime in the Western World,” showcases the kind of wildly labyrinthine melody that only the most gifted songsmiths are capable of owning; a melodic line that ambles over half-a-minute but seems seamless and classic. “God & Suicide” is nothing short of a perfect two-and-a-half minute pop song. That it sounds so strangely and intensely like some alien Eve 6 song only enhances its complex perfection.
And then there’s what I can only rationalize as the “Hey, we’ve got an album of folk-rock songs let’s throw in some piano ballads in diversity” songs. “Echo/Always On/EZ Con” is pretty enough, if immediately forgettable. And then it transmogrifies into what I can only describe as akin to a 1970’s era Blaxploitation theme. Sound awesome? It’s not. And “Not Your Lover” is just, well, awful. Earley, whose voice is otherwise brilliantly versatile, assumes a nasal croon. The melody is inoffensive at best. And, what explanation could I ever propose for “Yeah, I’m a moon-walking cowboy, dusty riding”? Honestly? A moon-walking cowboy? Jesus.
That said, Furr is essential listening. It’s a difficult album to quantify if only because, while its failures are so deeply frustrating, its peaks are truly astounding.
by Chris Kiehne