There are way too many bearded folkies holing up in cabins deep in the woods to make records these days. Either that or they're decking out the studio to sound like they were holed up in a cabin deep in the woods. But only Blitzen Trapper could truly pass themselves off as a band from the 1970s. There's a strong scent of Laurel Canyon smoothness to the Oregon quintet's laid-back hippie grooves that can never be mistaken for fleet or foxy.
For the past few years, Blitzen Trapper frontman Eric Earley has been hitting a dustier trail for his band's albums, starting with 2008's Furr, continuing with last year's Destroyer of the Void, and ending up with American Goldwing, which came out last month. They all lead to the same tuneful Americana, told with banjos, harmonicas, pianos, and occasionally fuzzy guitar. Despite the feedback freakout that starts their sixth album, they really don't tramp any new ground here. But once you've finally settled into a good groove, there's no rush to get out of it.
"I like classic guitars," says Earley somewhat sheepishly. "I really wasn't thinking about doing a new record. It started as a solo thing, since they're more personal songs. But when I got in the studio, they started sounding good. So I brought the other guys in. Each record is like a snapshot of where I am in my life."
On the earlier albums (the first three before Furr got the buzz rolling), Blitzen Trapper sounded like a band stumbling for some direction. There were signs of what was coming, especially on 2007's Wild Mountain Nation, but it wasn't until Furr that Earley hit on something. He got about as close as he could to making a Dylan/Dead/Band record without actually inventing a time machine to transport himself and his crew back to 1970.
Destroyer of the Void was more ambitious, and maybe just a little predictable. It stepped away from the group's holy trinity of influences to find some identity with a mix of double-tracked guitar runs, tiny synth burps, and spacey time shifts. It was all rather epic-sounding — even if the album lacked actual songs, coming off as it did more like a series of elaborate multi-part suites with no direction home.
American Goldwing, the third part of this don't-call-it-a-trilogy, scales back a bit. "There's a simplicity to the new record," admits Earley. "It's pretty stripped-down. There's not a lot of extra fat on these songs."
Like the artists he famously borrows from, Earley has no idea where he's going next. Of course, it will probably sound like something from the late 1960s or early '70s. And of course, it will probably come with faded nostalgia and a slight twang. "I listen to a lot of hard rock and country music," he says. "But I don't like a lot of folk music, to be honest."