Furr feels outside of time.
If you listened to the first three Blitzen Trapper albums – Blitzen Trapper, Field Rexx, and Wild Mountain Nation – you might have gleaned that they’d be capable of something more expansive than their lo-fi alt-country aesthetic. The latter of the those three, 2007’s beautifully messy Wild Mountain Nation, gives a few more hints to the weird noise they’d come to make after – the crunchy “Wild Mountain Nation,” the backwater “Wild Mtn. Jam,” the chaotic noise track “Woof & Warp of the Quiet Giant’s Hem,” the dance-rock “Sci-Fi Kid.” Frontman Eric Earley’s straight-up folk lyrics and frankly Tweedy-esque voice provided an anchor for the band’s wanderings – though they never stray incredibly far from their rock wheelhouse, the keen listener may have heard those songs and wondered what would happen if they were given, say, a major label’s budget and a recording studio befitting their imaginations – I know I did.
A year later, Blitzen Trapper returned with Sub Pop’s backing, and Furr to show for it. The album doesn’t so much expand the band’s worldview as it took their most fruitful urges and tightened them. Just a year separate it and Wild Mountain Nation, but their leap forward between the two was immediately, glaringly obvious. While the former’s “Devil’s A-Go-Go” starts us with a burst of clumsy guitar noise, the latter instead starts with a torrent of sunshine. “Sleepytime in the Western World” announces its ‘70s AM radio pop joy from the first second, and while it’s not entirely far removed from where we last left them, it’s clear that this was a band that could make the most of any good studio they happened to find themselves in. Earley’s excitement is palpable, and his delivery does as little as possible to hide this: “Your eyelids are made of lead/ You can’t keep them up,” he sings, legitimately daring you to not sing-shout along. Their control of the flow of a song only strengthened, and “Sleepytime’s” subtle loud-quiet-loud dynamic elevates their sound from folk-rocky to almost theatrical. It knows exactly when to pull back or shift, and when to burst into life again. Wild had an exhilarating, ramshackle quality, but “Sleepytime” – and Furr as a whole – ratchets this up to a point of religious exuberance for weird, fun folk.
Furr tastefully splits itself into three categories: songs that are straight-up folk, songs that are Americana-soaked, classically Blitzen Trapper songs, and songs that are totally out there – and magic exists in each. That “B. Trapp classic” sweet spot is where it finds itself most, which is the same world “Sleepytime” exists in. This is Blitzen Trapper at their most safe, not necessarily expanding the sound found on earlier recordings, but still tightening and polishing. “Sleepytime” leads into “Gold for Bread,” a tight, dynamic jam that capitalizes on the energy of the song before it while delivering the itchy guitar riffs that had made them such a treat. “Gold,” however, flickers with a weird energy, with electronic chatter starting to fill in the margins surrounding that clang. “God & Suicide” is the truest center here, and presents the best distillation of everything that the band does successfully: infectious harmonies atop a ludicrously tight band, and some of Earley’s best lyrics to date. “Fire & Fast Bullets” and “War on Machines” both follow this trend, the latter of which dips a foot in their former self-recorded glory just enough to make its fuzz-rock feel electrifying, rather than like a band trying to play it too safe.
It’s difficult to say which of the album’s three categories contain the album’s best tracks, but a compelling case could be for the capital-f Folk songs they’ve peppered throughout. The album’s title track is a gorgeous, infectious tale that likens the sound of howling wolves to “my mother calling through the trees” and proudly succumbs to our desire to become a wild animal – before being pulled back from this by true love. It only subtly flirts with noisiness for the final chorus, but for three-and-a-half minutes, it embodies not just an earthy folk sound, but displays a naked love of the music. This is taken even further on the album’s closer, “Lady on the Water,” a song that makes you feel like you’ve heard it a hundred times before. Scarcely more than Earley and an occasional, ethereal piano and synth tones (decidedly not a folk instrument, but elegantly displayed enough to be forgivable), “Lady” is an achingly gorgeous song, beautiful enough lyrically that it’s tempting to quote every single stanza here – especially “My lady on the water, place your thumb upon my tongue/ Leave a song no one has sung,” but especially “Lady on the water whip this wind into a flame/ With your grapes and bottled rain/ Make your wine of my worship of divinely strange refrain.”
The final category is where the band lets loose their more varied impulses, an each experiment on Furr pays off. The piano-led “Not Your Lover” has aged remarkably well, its lyrics about adopting other lives in dreams remaining tender and unpretentious, rather than seeming schmaltzy or disingenuous after a decade. Similarly, “Saturday Nite” is earnest enough to not seem like a novelty song – it presents a quiet boogie number, with the band adopting disco tones and executing them with the volume turned down. In the hands of lesser artists, this song would be disposable, but for Blitzen Trapper, it becomes a sprightly palate cleanser. This is perhaps useful, as it helps us come into “Black River Killer,” the album’s centerpiece: a muscular murder ballad that uses clever layering and a theremin to evoke hip-hop tones to weave a story about a roving killer, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake as he snakes his way up through Colorado and Oregon. Entire essays could be written about the imagery evoked in “Black River Killer,” each verse painting a vivid portrait: “It was just a little while past the sunset strip/ They found the girl’s body in an open pit/ Her mouth was sewn shut, but her eyes were still wide/ Gazin’ through the fog to the other side.” It’s unflinching in its brutality, at odds with the tone struck by the rest of the album, and may never be topped by the band. Two tracks later, we arrive at “Love U,” a chaotic 3-minute detour into guitar squalls and Earley’s blood-curdling screams. Like “Saturday Nite,” “Love U” succeeds because of the passion of the band playing it, and despite being entirely unlike every other song on the album (especially “Not Your Lover,” sequencing be damned, is directly before this one), but is similarly essential to the album here, giving us the howling mentioned in “Furr,” as well as the antidote to the same song’s gentle kindness.
Sub Pop’s expanded 10th anniversary edition of the album presents us with a reminder that, despite how much of an all-killer-no-filler album it is, there was yet more incredible material that could have easily ended up on the record as well, compiled from unreleased tracks and Record Store Day releases. By their nature, these run the gambit on stylistic choices, each of which is wonderful, if not always entirely essential. “Booksmart Baby” – firmly an essential track – capitalizes on the moody fingerpicking present on “Black River Killer” and asks Earley to do his best Elliott Smith impression: “Oh, I, dragon drink in time/ Someday you’ll be beautiful and my/ Maybe you’ll park full stakes/ To keep you clear and clean.” He’s never quite as lyrically shrouded as he is here, but his soft-sketch writing makes this one truly captivating. Elsewhere, on “On My Way to the Bay,” he tells another vivid tale, this time on a tighter, almost matter-of-fact scale: “Well, that engine boy/ He took one good look/ Then he took my gun/ And shot that witch in the foot.” The collection concludes with a pair of recordings from a KCRW “Morning Becomes Eclectic” studio session from the era that perfectly captured their live energy through the lenses of “God & Suicide” and “Furr.” The anniversary collection is topped off with an in-depth interview between Earley and actor/Blitzen Trapper fanatic/fellow Cascadian Rainn Wilson (yes, you read that right), where the pair deep dive into the songwriting process and dissect its songs. The pairing is odd, but totally charming.
A decade on, Furr feels outside of time in a lot of ways. It has aged like wine, and is still just as charming, earnest, heartfelt and downright fun as it was in the waning days of the Bush administration. Every song not mentioned here deserves to be admired, dissected and praised just as much as the rest; it’s a modern classic that gives us 13 shockingly great songs, each created with care by people dedicated to expanding what “folk rock” can look like, warping it with their weirdest influences and impulses with gleeful abandon. It’s hard to say if they’ve managed to replicate the magic present here in the decade since, but it’s great that the magic of Furr is still so clear