Blitzen Trapper Pays Exquisite Homage to American Rock

Blitzen Trapper -- 'American Goldwing' -- Sub Pop -- 4 STARS

“Winter is where she abides all the while / Her hillsides are covered in snow,” Blitzen Trapper’s aptly named vocalist Eric Earley sings in “Girl in a Coat,” the sixth track on the band’s new album “American Goldwing.” As the weather is beginning to change and images of snow-covered hills are soon to become a defining feature of the landscape, “American Goldwing,” has perhaps missed a more appropriate release date. Nonetheless, for an album of this quality, a late arrival is better than none at all.

“American Goldwing” is decidedly Americana, and it hovers between the boundaries of classic rock and folk, telling familiar tales with a touch of western twang. Despite its traditionalist bent, “American Goldwing” is surprisingly diverse. When up-tempo, its pulsing, classic rock–inspired guitar riffs, driving drumbeats, and underpinning bass lines wind their way through each song’s varying yet cohesive sections. When mellow, its picked-out guitar melodies and gentle vocals come across with spare clarity. Part beer-and-barbecue Americana and part musical achievement, the album straddles the line between simplicity and complexity, and builds surprisingly nuanced songs out of relatively standard components. What emerges is a rare breed of album both catchy and awe inspiring that layman and connoisseur alike can appreciate.

That the members of Blitzen Trapper are talented musicians is clear from the outset. Yet while they have the potential for extreme musical sophistication, they mostly refrain and instead put their effort into the subtleties that make good, familiar songs into great ones. The most successful passages on “American Goldwing” are marked by a clean clarity. One brilliant moment comes in a transition about halfway through the album’s third track, “Love the Way You Walk Away.” The drummer cuts the chorus with a cymbal crash, trading a steady kick for an equally simple four-four beat that underlies a basic banjo melody. A slide guitar wanders in the periphery, while a two-part harmony coasts atop everything. This nuanced layering gives otherwise unremarkable parts the depth to be musically interesting while still remaining comprehensible.

Simplicity does not mean a lack of skill, however. Blitzen Trapper is capable of masking even their more convoluted musical ideas with the appearance of ease. Within the album, there is cohesion, brevity, and, perhaps most importantly, space. Bltizen Trapper knows equally well the power of musical expression and the restraint that allows it to flourish. Toward the end of the first track, “Might Find It Cheap,” as the chorus comes to a close, the guitarist interrupts his regular strumming, leaving space on the fourth beat. At the same time, the drummer curtails his regular beat by one note, expanding the rest and creating the effect of a hiccup that then drops into a strong chord and quick, punchy guitar line. While these subtle specifics may go unnoticed, they create an unmistakable tension and resolve that take place within the span of a few seconds. It is small details like these that keep the record musically impressive without eliminating the nostalgic power of their songs.

The album is primarily about clean, understandable music. Through instrumentation and song structures similar to those of classic rock giants like Kansas and lyrics that operate in common narrative and descriptive motifs—hometowns, lost loves, the words ‘American’, ‘gold’, and ‘wing’—Blitzen Trapper imbues its music with familiar comfort. What makes this album powerful is the subtlety and careful construction behind its sound.

After beginning in cacophonous noise and progressing through a series of upbeat, touching, relaxed, and catchy tunes, “American Goldwing” closes with a sentimentally slow harmonica, guitar, and piano backing to Earley singing softly, “When I’m gone you’ll know me by the friends I leave behind.” As Blitzen Trapper ends its album, it leaves behind a moment of musical eloquence, and a familiar sound brought back alive once again.

—Staff writer Keerthi Reddy can be reached at kreddy@college.harvard.edu.

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