One of the most impressive of a wave of bands the blogosphere has dubbed "beard-" or "forest-rock" -- often hirsute, sometimes precious back-to-nature boys dedicated to semi-acoustic Americana/folk-rock; see also: Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Midlake, and Animal Collective in its less electronic moments -- the Portland sextet Blitzen Trapper first won widespread attention with its third indie release "Wild Mountain Nation" (2007) and the equally impressive Sub Pop follow-up "Furr" (2008). Helping the group rise above the pack: the timeless melodies and novelistic lyrics of guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Eric Earley, who knows that the woods aren't always a friendly, cheerful place‚ (check out the haunting "Black River Killer" on the last disc), and the fact that the band is as impressive in concert as it is in the studio -- its performance at the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival held the audience in rapt silence, no easy feat amid the many distractions of a big outdoor festival.
Unfortunately, the subtlety that's been the band's strong suit is overwhelmed at times by a surprising injection of art-rock bombast on album number five. Earley was one of the last tunesmiths I'd have pegged with a hidden desire to ape Muse -- or at least Queen -- but there's no denying that that's what he's doing in the epic, 6:17 opening suite/title track, which is rife with cheesy, stacked harmonies, tinkling harpsichord, synthesizer glissandos, cringe-worthy lyrics ("See this wayward son, boy"¦ his voice is like the wind that blows"), and the kind of faux-Brian May guitar licks you'd hear some geeky putz rifling off as he attempts to impress the couldn't-care-less clerks at Guitar Center. And the painfully overwrought filigree continues on other tracks such as "Love and Hate," "Heaven and Earth," and "Lover Leave Me Drowning."
The album is not without its merits: The stripped-down murder ballad "The Man Who Would Speak True" is a worthy follow-up to "Black River Killer," and "The Tree" is an equally spare and appealing woody duet with psychedelic folkie Alela Diane. But in the context of the failed pomp-rock experiments, these play more like obligatory sops to fans of the last two albums than attempts to expand those more traditional (though delightfully twisted) sounds.
Though I retain an enduring fondness for the pagan weirdness of the Incredible String Band and the much less hip Jethro Tull (at least through "Heavy Horses" in 1978), the mixture of folk and progressive rock has never played well in American hands, and it's tragic to hear Blitzen Trapper dabbling in this ignoble tradition. Remember, the dweebs in Kansas and Styx had beards, too.
Star rating on the traditional four-star scale: TWO STARS.
Blitzen Trapper will perform at Lollapalooza in Grant Park, some time over the weekend of Aug. 6 to 8 (the schedule has not yet been posted).
As Lester Bangs' biographer, as well as someone who had a none-too-distinguished college career himself (most of the time I spent at New York University, I was more interested in writing about music for fanzines), it warms the cockles of my heart to see this legend of rock criticism, who was never graduated, recently honored with a plaque on the "walk of fame" at Grossmont Junior College in his native El Cajon, California, in the suburbs outside San Diego. These photos are courtesy of Raul Sandelin, an English professor at the school who is in the process of putting together " the Lester Bangs Grossmont Archive -- an ongoing online collection that features articles by and about [Bangs]; related MP3s, photos, interviews, audio, video, and other materials." Which just goes to show that there's hope for literary slackers everywhere.