Blitzen Trapper: “American Goldwing”
There was a point– and I’d zero in on Exile on Mainstreet, though others may put it a bit earlier– when the Rolling Stones’ country music fixation went from sounding slightly kitschy to thoroughly lived in. I’m not sure if Blitzen Trapper has reached such a point in their own career, and I sorta hope they never do. On American Goldwing— their most focused and country-ish record to date– they still tear into American roots music like a power pop band who learned everything they know about twang from Elton circa the Tumbleweed are and the Dylan of John Wesley Harding and New Morning. They’re not adverse to throwing in some pedal steel and juke-joint piano, but they’re always too restless, to prone to muscular rock and swoonworthy, radio-ready pop to approach anything that might pass for authentic country music. I love them for it: They’re a rock and roll band without ego or pretense, uninterested in adopting a pose but simply devoted to sharing the music they love. American Goldwing revels in memories without ever scumming to nostalgia, and offers a generosity of spirit that’s virtually unheard of these days. It’s no more a country album than Tumbleweed Connection was, but it’s a damn fine and wildly entertaining record no matter how you want to classify it.
And by the way: These guys don’t really sound much like the Rolling Stones, my earlier comparison and a song called “Street Fighting Sun” notwithstanding. Part of the disconnect is because they don’t play blues riffs; they learned their guitar moves from a few decades of arena rock, so there’s a lot of soaring and not a lot of strutting. More crucially, their singer, Eric Earley, has none of Jagger’s smugness or attitude. He’s more of a heart-on-sleeves earnest kind of guy, a teddy bear who dresses up his sensitivity in the language and lore of rock music, which I assumed he’s absorbed from what must be a huge and fairly excellent record collection. If anything, the Blitzens make the kind of records I wish Wilco would make, and think they could make were they not so self-referential, or so prone to equating a sense of adventure with a love of “experimenting.”
Really, I’m just inclined to say that this is a Blitzen Trapper record; through no self-conscious efforts to brand themselves, really through nothing other than making the kinds of record they want to make, they’ve established themselves as one of America’s best and most underrated rock and roll bands, somehow coming across as a worthy alternative to both Wilco and Weezer. Their last few albums have been kaleidoscopic cross-sections of classic rock and American roots music, complete with their own personal “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the start of Destroyers of the Void. There is nothing so bombastic here. American Goldwing is an album that goes for depth over breadth, discovering further variations and ultimately tightening up their country/rock leanings while eschewing anything as dramatic as “Destroyers,” but also anything as overtly classicist as the Gram Parsons-styled “The Tree.”
This is just Blitzen Trapper doing what they do best; it’s a blaze of muscular rock and roll romance with twilit country overtones, all played with a wink at the past but nothing close to nostalgia or smirk. It’s made with a certain weight given to tradition but no particular reverence, or even significance, attributed to genre distinctions; piano and harmonica and pedal steel are thrown into the mix when they sound good but never to underscore how “rootsy” the band can be or lend some sense of faux authenticity. It’s made with knowing references to the past– “Astronaut,” for example, seems likely to have been written as a rejoinder to Elton’s “Rocket Man,” but it’s neither a sequel nor a cloying invitation for reference-spotting, but rather plays like an honest and unpretentious interaction with rock history.
The best songs here, in fact, are the ones that use familiar tropes as launchpads but twist them into new expressions of timeless truths, in a way that only Blitzen Trapper could. “Love the Way You Walk Away” has a Dylanesque cadence to the thick verbiage of the verse, and its sentiment– a kind of respectful shrug to a lover on her way out the door– is the kind of subversive thing Bob himself might appreciate. The chorus is a soaring, cathartic thing, with plucked banjo, weepy steel guitar, and a thrilling chorus that sounds, yes, like it could have been a Tumbleweed anthem. “Fletcher” is a good-old-boy anthem with earnest compassion, twang, distortion, and feedback– but what’s most memorable is the sing-along hook. “Taking it Easy Too Long” is a self-effacing lament draped in steel guitar– and it is, indeed, a more natural slide into pure Gram territory than “The Tree” was.
The album is boundlessly energetic and steeped in a not-too-reverent view of history, but what’s most vital is that it’s even more bountiful in emotion; Earley has a knack for expressing common tropes in fresh language that sounds, nevertheless, like it could find a home on classic rock or country radio. Just about every track here could be a single in some alternate universe, which at this point is something of a cliche, but one that the Blitzens deserve; American Goldwing may be their best work yet, and is certainly their most consistently compelling.