The menacing, gloomy backwoods that open Blitzen Trapper’s seventh album arrive without warning, a backdrop with the startling, dark allure of a horror film, crooked roads and deep, wild forest framing a narrative that just can’t end well.
It’s the details of the setting that brings “Feel The Chill” to life for singer/songwriter Eric Earley. Striding along Earley’s quickly spat lyrics are a guitar riff that steals equally from funk and twang, harmonica blasts like cries for help and a disembodied organ, floating in on the wind.
The band has trudged through that territory before, but never brought things so convincingly together as on VII, the band’s most consistent and cohesive album.
With each record, Earley’s writing grows more vivid, closer to the short-story-in-a-song realm of the Drive-By Truckers, Vic Chesnutt and Jason Molina at his most direct. That’s not to say Earley typically writes with so much darkness as the late, troubled Chesnutt or Molina, but that he creates slice-of-life reality as well as anybody.
Earley’s characters are the distinctly rural or small-town set, and whether they’re wounded or triumphant, these characters are honest, lifelike and endlessly captivating.
Musically, Blitzen Trapper is less idiosyncratic but no less unique, with a sound the band now calls “Rocky Mountain Whoop-ass.” But while American Goldwing, the band’s last of three LPs on Sub Pop, stayed in a more familiar vein of barnstorming Americana, VII stretches out more, with some head-banging rowdiness, shameless hickishness and elements that wouldn’t seem to belong sliding smoothly into place.
At the more controlled end of the spectrum, “Ever Loved Once” brings the pedal steel, banjo and harmonica, but all in service of a steady rock beat. Earley draws out a metaphor comparing a busted relationship to a half-built house: “If I ever loved once you know I never loved right by you,” he sings, with the resignation of a woodsman who knows he can never survive in the city.
On “Thirsty Man,” Earley tackles questions of heritage and identity, specifically how much of the Devil’s influence pass by blood through generations. “You can run for a million miles, but you can never outrun your name,” he sings, before being overtaken by dueling guitar and organ solos.
VII’s weird stretch takes over the album’s middle, with “Oregon Geography,” the trippiest banjo song this side of Tom Waits, the methed-out insanity of “Neck Tatts, Cadillacs,” and “Earth (Fever Called Love),” which combines a raw slide guitar groove and a beat pulled from the sparest realms of hip-hop or industrial.
Blitzen Trapper is back in the realm of The Band (albeit much stranger around the edges) on “Drive On Up,” a vignette-laden song about scrambling after what you want, one night at a time. “Heart Attack” sounds most like the celebratory roots-rock of American Goldwing, with big hooks in the chorus and a muscular lead guitar.
The album mellows out on the final two tracks, “Faces of You,” which blends organ-driven retro soul with psychedelic guitar, and “Don’t Be A Stranger,” with acoustic guitar, twangy banjo and harmony vocals woven together to recall the best of the band’s rustic country songs: “Furr” (2008) “Tree” (2010) and “Stranger In A Strange Land” (2011).
VII is Blitzen Trapper’s strongest album to date, with years of musical experimentation having come together in the band’s own mad-scientist brand of cosmic Americana. At the front is Earley, writing from the heart and from sharply recalled memories, stories that are colorful, bizarre and built to thrill, like those murky woods of “Feel The Chill.”