Thursday, July 08, 2010

Review: Blitzen Trapper, Destroyer of the Void

Blitzen Trapper
Destroyer of the Void


On long family car rides, before the advent of portable MP3 players with headphones, we used to listen to classic rock and oldies stations on the radio. My dad would inevitably start a game to channel our frustration about being crammed in the backseat away from each other and towards something marginally constructive. Every time a song would come on, he’d call out “Who plays this?!” and badger us (“No, not Lenny Kravitz. What decade were you guys born in? This is classic!”) until we got it right. In the interest of keeping our sanity, we learned to match certain sounds, riffs and vocal styles to bands very quickly. Listening to Destroyer of the Void, the newest release from Oregon beard rockers Blitzen Trapper, it felt a bit like my dad should pop up every 30 seconds or so with his trademark question.
The album begins with the prog-rock title track that sounds a little like the musical love child of Bob Dylan and David Bowie married the musical love child of Led Zeppelin and Freddie Mercury and had a musical love child of its own, which was bottle fed Abbey Road (see family tree here). The opening multi-track harmonies are just the first step in this rock opera in miniature, which flows from harmonic piano ballads to Queen licks to spacey Bowie imitations to static noise to tearing Jimmy Page riffs and back. Throughout this chaotic musical landscape, frontman Eric Early’s ragged Dylan-esque whine sounds natural carrying a narrative complete with classic rock and folk motifs of “wayward sons” and “rolling stones.”
After the grand sonic gestures of “Destroyer of the Void,” with its influences shifting as frequently as its tempo, the songs become narrower, settling comfortably into their own sounds. From the prog pomp of “Laughing Lover” to the Peter, Paul and Mary folk duet of “The Tree” to the heavy drums and bass of 70s jam “Dragon Song” to the more metallic rocker of “Love and Hate,” Destroyer of the Void has a wide array of sounds and styles that largely only cohere in that they all seem to owe a tip of the hat to the past in one way or another. Each track is wearing its varied influences plainly on its sleeve. To quote Wilco: “You already know the story / And the chords are just the same / You already know I love you / And I sound like what's his name.”
Often, Destroyer of the Void sounds like a long list of what’s his names and stories you already know. “Evening Star” plays like Dylan and the Band teamed up with Tom Petty. The woozy piano, strings and breezy harmonies over chugging bass on “Lover Leave Me Drowning” take a page from the later chapters of the Lennon/McCartney songbook. “The Man Who Would Speak True” (or “Black River Killer:" The Less Thrilling Sequel) spins the tale of the age-old murder narrative. “Sadie” is a piano take on, well, the bittersweet ode to a female name (and maybe Sadie is also sexy? Just saying.). This is not to say that baring your influences is a bad thing--although it can sometimes be a dangerous thing. It can sound dated and anachronistic. Or it can come off as a second-rate imitation (ex. a Lenny Kravitz to The Guess Who—or worse.). However, it seems to me that Blitzen Trapper manages to pull it off. It strikes a balance of self-awareness (if you’ll indulge further Wilco quoting, they seem to “know it sounds like someone else's song / from a long time ago”) that coats the tracks with a reverent nostalgia for musical eras past while the songwriting keeps it original and Early’s rough edges provide the rootsy authenticity.
But just to make sure, I played bits of Destroyer of the Void for my dad in the car the other day. “Who plays this?” I asked him. He shrugged. “Come on! No idea? What decade?” After listening through another song he confidently and incorrectly answered, “The seventies.” So while I can’t give it full points on consistency (although one man's inconsistent is another man's diverse), I guess you can put a pretty confident check in the “authenticity” column.
Recommended tracks: “Destroyer of the Void,” “Evening Star,” "Below the Hurricane," “Sadie,” “Lover Leave Me Drowning.”
-- Catherine DeGennaro


Anonymous said...

This article is incredible for a number of reasons:
1. The author is awesome.
2. The witty commentary made by the author is awesome.
3. Classic rock is awesome.
4. Wilco quote. 'nuff said
5. Solid introductory anecdote.

Mark said...

I am glad that I am not the only person who is constantly thinking about Wilco quotes and applying them to things. No joke. Constantly.

fiona said...

catherine knocks my socks off. no but really, this is actually my new favorite wgtb review of all time--from the supplemental anecdotes to the proliferous linkage, everything was spot on. but let me say that I'm not a girl for ballads, and my favorite track on the album was still "Heaven and Earth". And maybe it is because it feels like I've heard it before, but like Devendra Banhart once said, "it's like finding home / in an old folk song / that you've never ever heard / still you know every word / and for sure you can sing along"

Caroline said...

i agree, this review would already be super well done even if you only considered the family tree graphic. thumbs up CD. but i did not like this album one bit. boring boring. live, they were great, and i loved wild mountain nation, but this sounded - while we're quoting - like "what the world needs now is another folk singer / like i need a hole in my head."