Blitzen Trapper

Wild Mountain Nation

(LidKerCow Ltd.; 2007)

By Clayton Purdom | 10 July 2007

Rock bands'll do some crazy shit. Radiohead will, like, stop playing guitars; the Rolling Stones will continue playing concerts in defiance of nature; the White Stripes will employ bagpipes; the Who will sneer at pretension, create their shitty Wall and net dumbly dumbfounded fans in the process; the Boss will go acoustic at his biggest; Nirvana will sell out, only to buy their way back in; the Clash will release a shitty triple-LP, knowing it's shitty but releasing it just because; the Stooges will reunite; Sting will play a lute on TV, supposedly not as a dare; Harvey Danger and the New Radicals will write the two best pop songs of (or at least about) the 1990s; Henry Rollins will become a talk show host. And so on. Those of us for whom listening to pop music holds more importance than morning ablutions enjoy bemoaning the boredom of the musical world, but, really, these guys do their best to keep us on our toes. Shit gets topsy-turvy pretty regular.

It's not that these things don't happen in indie rock, it's just that when these superbands feel an artistic itch they have the million$ on hand to scratch immediately, fuck the consequences. And when perturbations arise at that level of public scrutiny, there are shockwaves, press conferences, apologies, awards shows, etc. In the smaller arena of indie rock, there's less room for reverberations when a band tries something new. Plus, at least in theory, "we" are more openminded listeners, more willing to try new sonic experiences--thus explaining the Polyphonic Spree. But (and this is my point) what Blitzen Trapper have done on their third and by far best record is surprising in the Big way, indie band or not. Inexplicably, they have synthesized their influences--largely the FM dial presented in the first paragraph--into something confident and deep, and then shot that something new with an almost deranged surplus of inspiration. The music world is not abuzz with talk of Blitzen Trapper's accomplishment, but it feels like it should be.

This is because Wild Mountain Nation is a surprising record, not just artistically but sonically too, right into the very sounds comprising the songs. The first three tracks alone of this 34-minute panoply contain a journal of fucked-up, roadtripped musical misadventures: here herky-jerky honky tonk, drum rolls ending in whiskey splashed crashes; there title track anthemics, all earnest dirty backporch melodicism; then rolling acoustic whispered pulses replete with keyboard flourishes and wordless choruses. Their evocation of Appalachia seems based in some mythic, Willy Wonka version of the region, stoned and boozy and, in the case of "Wild Mtn. Jam," a bit cartoonish. In reality Appalachia sounds a lot more like "Jesus Take The Wheel" and Megadeth, but that's okay, because invoking regions as a misleading dominant ingredient is one of the great interpretative tricks/traditions of rock and roll (see: John Fogarty, Murray Street [2002], Britpop, U-God), and Blitzen Trapper's music here has the cohesive array of a good regional compilation.

The Wild Mountain Nation, in other words, might as well exist, a gorgeously backwards romanticization of America's poorest region. A surprising accomplishment from six Oregonians, to be sure, but this is, after all, a surprising record and a mess of contradictions--an okay band making a great record, classic rock songcraft made contemporary through sheer force of will, a quiet and loud album simultaneously, dancing along the lo-fi/hi-fi binary, a fucking record about Appalachia made by dudes from Portland!--that thrillingly, thinly, radiantly congeals. There are names to drop all over the place, like James Gang, Six Organs of Admittance, Odelay! (1996), Steve Albini, but the more important point is how well each of these thousand influences is represented here. The unrelenting invention of the opening triad is held up throughout and one can pick out favorites --I call "Sci-fi Kid" and "Country Caravan"--but here, more so than any other record of recent memory, favorites are personal preference alone. Wild Mountain Nation is exactly what it strives to be: an eccentrically, overwhelmingly American rock record, so encyclopedic but so svelte that in places it feels like a new starting point.