For a band that has been gaining momentum over the past several releases, Blitzen Trapper’s latest, American Goldwing finds the Portland group pausing a bit to catch their breath. From the wildly chaotic squall of their first two albums, through their more polished 2007 breakthrough, Wild Mountain Nation, into their 2008 folk-rock gem, Furr, up to the bold moves of last year’s Destroyer of the Void, Blitzen Trapper have been sculpting a finely tuned amalgamation of classic rock, folk-country, and prog.
Never predictable and never repetitive, lead singer Eric Earley’s lyrics filter the mundane existence of typical American life through a hazy blur of the mystical and numinous, while the rest of the band stomps and hollers their way through the songs with a Big Pink-like sense of casualness and spontaneity. Breezy and fun, yet taking insolent turns along the way, Blitzen Trapper’s sense of adventure is one of their strong points and one of the main reasons for their developing and fervent growth on the music scene. They also know how to keep the public attuned as prolific may be too tame a word to classify the band’s output. American Goldwing still provides all the goods of previous releases, but lessens the experimental phases and plays to the band’s strengths and influences. Scattered throughout, listeners can hear Tom Petty’s open-road optimism in “My Hometown”, a little Jeff Tweedy acoustic strumming that opens and anchors the woebegone tale of the bitter bootlegger with a mind for revenge in “Fletcher”, some straight-ahead Big Star power pop in “Your Crying Eyes”, and echoes of Dylan’s “To Ramona” in the phrasing of album closer, “Stranger in a Strange Land”. They champion these reference points, but the sound is still distinctly Blitzen Trapper, which speaks to the versatility and command they possess. Despite a genre littered with bands paying homage to the above-mentioned masters, there are very few that can pull off the authenticity of the proper sound and feel, something Blitzen Trapper consistently aces.
It helps that Earley is a thinking man’s lyricist. American Goldwing seems to coalesce around the universal themes of being trapped in the same place for too long and lacking a purposeful plan for escape. Keeping with the band’s idiosyncratic appreciation for past culture, the album’s title references the Honda Goldwing, a motorcycle legendary for its touring capabilities, in short the perfect vehicle for escape and self-discovery. “Did you haunt the Goldwing, 1980/Ride my baby ride/We rode so low past the Devil’s gate/Then up through the valley below” he sings in the title track, using the famed bike as a vessel for the way out into the world beyond. Elsewhere, characters confess to ruts of complacency: “sticking around this lonesome town” well past the expiration date and behaving like “an astronaut on the shores of illusion”. Another troubled soul spends the night camped in the backseat of an old sedan, listening to the stars lecture him on his shortcomings with his beloved.
However, even travel and escape can offer no sure bets as the wise narrator of “Girl in a Coat” can attest. He has seen the world but still toils on bended knee for clarity from his “lonely love, the girl in the coat”. It is these dilemmas, dualities, and conundrums that define Blitzen Trapper’s music and elevate it to something essential. No one is ever satisfied yet rarely do people stop to count their fortunes. Some people learn the hard way, venturing far from home and losing touch with their inner guide. Others stick around and play “what if?” while others still find a good balance of freedom and self-happiness. A magic Goldwing may seem like a savior, but the truth rarely comes blazing up to one’s front door. Blitzen Trapper’s latest album summarizes this actualization quite well.