Round and Shiny: On, Blitzen
I heard a lot of strong records in 2011, but I'd be hard-pressed to make a "best-of" list. That's because even the most admirable releases couldn't pry me away from my classic-rock playlists for long.
I'm tempted to attribute this to the waning of the pleasure principle in pop music — an inability or refusal on the part of most artists to find that perfect mix of sweet melody and bracing energy — but maybe it's just the graying of my own taste. In any case, how many of this year's records have compelled me to play them over and over? Exactly one: Blitzen Trapper's American Goldwing.
The Portland, Ore., outfit has been blazing its own idiosyncratic trail for a decade now, but it wasn't until 2008's Furr that they landed on the radar of pop geeks like me. The folky title track, a dreamy fable of discovering one's inner dog and running free for a while, enchanted the same folks who dug Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and suchlike alterna-coustic sensations. But I was just as entranced by Furr tracks like the slammin' "Sleepytime in the Western World," the driving "Gold for Bread" and the bouncy "Saturday Nite." Who were these guys, and how did they guess the combination to my pleasure center?
On Goldwing, frontman-songwriter Eric Earley and company perfect their mix of guitar rock and rootsy ramble. The musical blend suggests a heady cocktail of Cheap Trick's hormonal power pop and the Band's soul-deep twang. (Of course, you could pick out influences all day long, and I'll be damned if Earley and mates aren't disciples of the Grateful Dead — the latticework guitar figure on surging opener "Might Find It Cheap," for example, mashes up the primary motif on the Dead's epic "Terrapin Station.")
And though Blitzen Trapper occasionally serves up purely mellow fare like the incandescent pastoral "Girl in a Coat," Goldwing finds the Blitzen boys cooking folk and rock in a single stew more often.
Witness the loping title track, half sagebrush and half cosmic vapor trails, with harmonica and electric piano chasing each other across the constellations. Or the hootenanny prelude to the '70s-style stomper "Your Crying Eyes." Even the delicious bombast of the Zeppelin-meets-White-Stripes workout "Street Fighting Sun" has slide guitar at its heart and devolves, at last, into a tussle of Jew's harp and banjo. The woozy, Southern-fried "Fletcher" suggests what Bad Company might've sounded like had they really been the rednecks they sometimes pretended to be. Another standout, "Astronaut," invents a kind of high-lonesome subgenre of glam-rock, veering from spacious desolation to buoyant boogaloo and back again.
Thematically, Goldwing — which takes its title from a lovingly remembered motorbike owned by Earley's brother — is all about the tension between sticking around and hitting the road after a seismic heartbreak. It's "ride, my people, ride" because "I think it's time to get on board" (on the title track) or "waitin' for a woman when I shoulda been gone" ("Takin' It Easy Too Long"). The nostalgic traveler who heads back to "My Home Town," determined to "break some ground, take a look around" also acknowledges: "It only take a woman drive a man insane." The interstellar romantic of "Astronaut" is "standing on the edge of the past/ In my space suit, wondering when this woman will call me at last."
Thematically, Goldwing is all about the tension between sticking around and hitting the road after a seismic heartbreak.
A sense of loss echoes throughout the album, notably in the disconsolate "Love the Way You Walk Away," in which our spurned hero spends the night "in an old sedan/ It was parked by the river where the oak tree stands." That car should be spiriting him away from his lost love's memory, but the stillness of its engine in the rural night is a picture of his conflicted heart. Country tropes about drinking too much whiskey, eating up miles of lonely road and talking to "those Western stars" abound.
But Blitzen Trapper does the greatest of all musical magic tricks with that surplus of sorrow, transforming it into all kinds of melodic beauty. Goldwing is an ideal holiday gift for anyone on your list who complains that rock doesn't hit the sweet spot anymore.
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