Blitzen Trapper always had it in them.
The 70s AM radio melodies, sprightly piano lines and rapid-fire Allman Brothers guitar licks lurked in the shadows of the Portland indie-folkers’ first two albums on Sub Pop. But on Act III, American Goldwing, the Trappers push those southern styles to the forefront while turning the dial down on the campfire sing-a-longs.
It’s a fair trade: you may be losing out on the simplified pleasantness of hits like “Furr” and “Black River Killer,” but in return you get a Blitzen Trapper turning up the amps and letting loose — and if you’ve ever seen them live, you know damn well that’s as strong as any of their suits.
The trademark harmonies are just as effective with the more accelerated tempos, and criminally underrated lead guitarist Erik Menteer is freed from the shackles to whip his tremendous southern-fried riffs in a way not heard since 2007’s freaked-out Wild Mountain Nation. There is also a clear and necessary adjustment to the production, with fuzzier guitar tones and dirtier harmonica to help ratchet up the amplified tunes.
“Might Find it Cheap” sends out a immediate notice of the album’s direction, starting with some hasty strikes of distorted guitar — just like every Blitzen Trapper concert. From there it pushes forward with a high-reaching chorus about foolish feelings and plenty of side-to-side, head-bob-inducing power chords. “Your Crying Eyes” taps into the ghosts of Blackfoot (you might remember their blues-rock romp “Train Train” but certainly nothing else) through the quick-draw ascending blues scales, raunchy slide guitar and foot-stomping harmonica. Late-album rager “Street Fighting Sun” makes a case for heaviest Blitzen Trapper jam (the reigning champ being Furr’s slow-slamming “Love U”) with tandem electric solos and hyped-up vocals from frontman Eric Earley.
The Blitzen Trapper we all know and love is still represented, especially in the middle tracks. “My Home Town” has the well-known wordless backgrounds, subtle banjo plucks and smiley vocal melody, while the title track employs busy but infectious electric piano and steady acoustic strums. Additionally, Earley is descriptive as ever regarding the ragtag cast of saloon characters populating his cowboy stories.
The group still takes the time to sit around the campfire (“Girl in a Coat,” album-closer “Stranger in a Strange Lair”), where Earley turns into a back roads version of Madman Across the Water-era Elton John. The groovy “Astronaut” also continues the Elton motif, but in a much more finger-snapping fashion.
It might not have been expected after the renaissance rock of last year’s Destroyer of the Void, but Blitzen Trappers’ fun-loving turn into southern rock stars is surely welcome. Every once in a while you have to take the horses back to the stables and fire up the ‘57 Chevy, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t exactly what you want in the waning weeks of summer.