Blitzen Trapper: “Furr”

It’s difficult to imagine a better record label home for Blitzen Trapper than Sub Pop, a label known for taking indie rockers and giving them the platform they need to reach a bigger, wider audience– which seems to be exactly what the band is shooting for on their Sub Pop debut, Furr, an album that’s exactly what a label debut for an indie rock group should be, giving them a slightly slicker, more polished sound without clouding the band’s signature sound.

Bigger, crisper sound isn’t always a good thing, of course, but it’s a natural fit for Blitzen Trapper, whose ragged aesthetic has always been a blessing and a curse. Their calling card has always been their musical ADD, their wild swings from genre to genre that make their records feel more like mix tapes than actual albums, and here they’re given the chance to flesh out their sound in a way that brings a sense of unity and cohesion to their stylistic mania. Indeed, more than ever, Blitzen Trapper sounds like what they’ve always been beneath the shaggy beards and lo-fi recording techniques– a pop band, smitten with big hooks and grand gestures. And Furr is nothing if not a pop record, filled with high-stepping choruses, gorilla-sized hooks, and arrangements that accentuate the band’s melodic gifts.

But if the cleaner, crisper sound augments the band’s strengths, it also highlights their shortcomings. The knock against Blitzen Trapper has traditionally been that they lack focus, but here it becomes apparent that focus isn’t their problem after all. Indeed, though a pop band at heart, the group is enamored with Americana, and they borrow liberally from the tropes and trappings of country-rock, folk, and roots music throughout this disc, be it in sound (as in the  chiming organ that drenches opening song “Sleepytime in the Western World”) or in form (the Dylanesque storytelling of the title song, the rustic murder ballad “Black River Killer”). And so as the album skips from one great idea to the next, resembling some kind of weird, fever-dream trip through American music history, the band holds everything together with their tight songcraft and hooks– notice how the crunching power pop of “Gold for Bread” feels like a natural fit between “Sleepytime” and “Furr.”

But though the band has the sense of craft needed to make it all hang together as an album– which is no easy trick– they lack the discipline to bring a real sense of depth or grit to their music. Their infatuation with Americana cannot be impugned, but their knowledge of it focuses on breadth rather than depth, as if they’ve listened to a lot of roots music but they’ve only absorbed it on a superficial level. They know how to lay on the weepy steel guitars, how to scale everything back for a rugged solo piano performance, how to let loose for a storming, classic-rock guitar shredder, but, in the end, these songs are still pop songs, dressed up to look like country-rock and folk but never getting to the heart of what that music is all about.

One would be inclined to accuse them of mere impersonation, of being no more than the sum of their record collection, but that isn’t fair at all; as pop songs, every track here works well, so there’s no denying the skill of this band. At the same time, though, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what they’re all about, because they sound too much like they’re playing dress-up rather than just being themselves. This doesn’t make for a bad album at all– in fact, it’s an immensely pleasurable and relentlessly entertaining one– but one suspects that this Sub Pop debut, as is so often the case with that label, will turn out to be  stepping stone toward bigger and better things, as the band comes into its own and learns how to leave their own mark on the music they clearly love so much.

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