Black River Killer EP
Label: Sub Pop
It makes sense that Portland’s Blitzen Trapper toured last year with Seattle’s Fleet Foxes; for those of you far from the pines and over the mountains, there seems to be a requisite stirring in the soul of the Pacific Northwest urbanite; there’s a longing for a pastoral serenity that may or may not exist but certainly can be visited or approximated in song. Whereas Robin Pecknold’s Foxes’ modus operandi is a strangely wonderful meld of madrigals and The Beach Boys, Blitzen Trapper sound much more concerned with the vocabulary of American rock music and the eddies and channels that originally flowed into it.
“Black River Killer,” a lithe country tune about a murderer spitting repeatedly in redemption’s eye, was available on last year’s Furr, but the EP for which it’s named contains six songs that heard only on band-made CD-Rs sold at tour merch tables. As these are likely outtakes or odds ‘n’ sods that didn’t fit a particular release, the seven songs, in toto, don’t especially seem to have any kind of unifying theme or flow; these are, instead, seven well-crafted pop-rock tunes that borrow heavily from the traditions of artists whose careers and songwriting have been established.
“Silver Moon” could be the best track here with its wild harmonica riff, plodding backbeat and sweet harmonies sounding something like a Jeff Lynne production of Old Crow Medicine Show, or if that’s unfathomable, an outtake from Tom Petty’s very-belated Mudcrutch record. “Going Down” is the first of a few songs where a Neil Young influence is worn on-sleeve; Eric Earley’s voice at times takes on the kind of wide-eyed wiseass cadence Young sang with on “Don’t Let it Bring You Down.” “Shoulder Full of You,” gets all “For the Turnstiles” on us, though its lyrics aren’t acerbic but rather poetic, lovely and candid, with references to a love riding on “a broken ten speed bike.”
“Preacher’s Sister’s Boy” is a sweet slice of pop with Drew Laughery’s keyboard sounding straight out of a Rentals record, though there’s a stark turn soon after on “Black Rock.” Over moody, minor key arpeggios, Earley haltingly and breathlessly recites nature-themed lyrics that are stark enough for early Leonard Cohen, yet performed with a voice gentle enough so as not to disturb woodland creatures. A snarling, twangy guitar at the beginning of the following “Big Black Bird” takes care of that. This is the final Young-sounding tune, complete with a stomp right out of the Ralph Molina playbook and a verse from Earley that you swear is about to veer into a sing-along of “Homegrown’s alright with me” at any second.
This isn’t any grand artistic statement at play here; that’s not what EPs are for. Instead, we’re granted access to a tour souvenir most of us likely missed out on the first time, and not a bad one either. Blitzen Trapper don’t hit any grand slams on Black River Killer but you get the feeling that they know how to live off the land and that, with this kind of songcraft, they’ll be surviving in the wilderness for some time to come.