Blitzen Trapper

“Furr” (Sub Pop Records) -- 3.5 STARS

Breaking into mainstream music can be difficult, especially for a folk-band when genres like pop and rap generally stand at the forefront. Last year, Blitzen Trapper, the energetic yet pensive Portland-based sextet, garnered recognition for their single “Wild Mountain Nation” from their third album of the same name. After signing last summer with Sub Pop Records, Trapper seems right at home with their record label, as their fourth album “Furr” showcases their talent well.

Influenced heavily by nature and their own spirituality, Trapper creates interesting tunes through light guitar chords and multiple keyboards, offering a sound reminiscent of Neil Young with a dash of Bob Dylan. Their album kicks off with “Sleepytime in the Western World,” a song detailing a nightmare about isolation in the occident. Despite the gloomy sentiments of the track, the music itself is strangely happy and doesn’t mesh with the lyrics. While a strange mix of elements such as seemingly symbolic images (“And as I finally tried to speak / Twelve birds flrew straightways from my mouth”) and a quirkily upbeat chorus (“Cause its sleepytime / and that’s no crime in the western world … Waiting for the moon and a love so true / It’s gonna see me through”), the song still sets the stage well for the album, as Trapper tries to remain catchy while exploring serious issues.

In the third song, from which the album takes its name, singer-songwriter Eric Earley paints an intriguing picture of what it would be like to have his skin turn to fur and then to join a pack of wolves, only to return to society after years in the wilderness.

As with many of their songs, “Furr” seems to have deeper implications than the lyrics superficially imply. Earley seems to be using the tale of the wolves as a metaphor for maturing into adulthood and accepting all the experiences that entails. The protagonist begins the story as a lost boy who spends six carefree years with a pack of wolves, until a young woman brings him back to society. He does not regret his wild years, but looks back on them fondly.The final line sums up what appears to be Earley’s mantra: “don’t be afraid of what you’ve learned.”

Throughout the album, Trapper continues to tell morality tales. In their song “God & Suicide,” Trapper breaks the norm and boldly declares “I can live with God and with suicide.” “Black River Killer,” probably the strongest song on the album, tells a harrowing story of a serial-killer cowboy. Assuming something of the murder ballad form, Earley tackles the spiritual consequences of murder and guilt. The evocative lyrics showcase Earley in his most poetic form as he describes the first murder: “They found the girl’s body in an open pit / Her mouth was sewn shut, but her eyes were still wide / Gazing through the fog to the other side.”

Despite the album’s many strengths, it’s clear that there’s something missing. On their track “Love U,” Trapper laments about an unrequited love. Trying to reflect the pain of the subject matter, Trapper deliberately makes the track painful to listen to. The lyrics, as well as Earley’s moaning of the word “Love,” have an echo of The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” yet boast none of that song’s vast beauty. While “Reign” stands out as one of The Who’s strongest and best songs, “Love U” is discordant and lyrically lackluster, demonstrating that, while a good songwriter, Earley has a lot to learn.

“Furr” closes on a surprisingly low note with “Lady on the Water.” For an album that poses so many questions and contains so many engaging songs, “Lady” disappoints as the final offering. Earley, accompanied by mellow, soporific guitar, merely paints another nature image, which by this point in the album has grown banal and uninteresting. An album that takes so many ambitious leaps certainly should not end so blandly.

While not a flawless jewel by any stretch, “Furr” is still a success for the band’s first record-label release. Trapper effectively shows their love of nature and produces a thought-provoking, yet enjoyable album. While the potential is there, Earley has work to do as a songwriter if the band wants to make the big leap of joining the ranks of folk legends like Young or Dylan.

—Reviewer Edward F. Coleman can be reached at efcolem@fas.harvard.edu.