- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 13 May 2009
Blitzen Trapper â€¢ Furr â€¢ Sub Pop
Now, Blitzen Trapper is a little more my speed. From the first note of their newest album, "Furr," you know that these guys are most assuredly not traveling minstrels. These guys like to rock and have a good time. They have song titles like "Fire and Fast Bullets," and "Black River Killer." They sing about shaking it on a Saturday night and their guitars are loud and appropriately distorted. They infuse elements of folk, country, soul, and more to form an original sound that never veers too far from the rock, and keeps the listener alert and on their toes until the last acoustic notes of "Lady On The Water."
This glowing introduction is not meant to confuse the reader into thinking that all of Blitzen Trapper's work is immediately accessible to the uninitiated ear. You're still going to be challenged. It takes a moment to get used to the lead singer's voice. He's a little nasal, but he still has soul. Some of the lead guitar licks sound like "Mississippi Queen," but they're played over hip-hop drums and are augmented by electronic synth sounds. There's some studio trickery too. There are layers upon layers, but the recording still sounds fresh and urgent. I don't know how long these guys have been at it (or anything else about them), but they've corralled a host of varying influences into a neat high-wire act that could just as easily have fallen to a hideous demise. Instead, they consistently reach new ground and never get "trapped" by their own gimmicks or experiments. It's a young sound, but you can hear traces of Dylan everywhere. What if Bob Dylan were the lead singer of Kiss? It might sound like a Blitzen Trapper song depending on which Blitzen Trapper song you choose.
The group kicks things off in high gear with "Sleepy Time In The Western World." I can't help but reach for older bands and familiar sounds to describe Blitzen Trapper's unique voice, and this one has some Big Star elements that are hard to ignore. "Gold For Bread" keeps the momentum going before things slow down a bit for the title track which is, to my ears, a psychedelic folk song about being raised by wolves. The songs on "Furr" seem so epic, but there's only one that is more than three and a half minutes long. They fit a ton of sounds and moves into a small amount of space, but it never seems forced or contrived. At least, not in a bad way. Then, they'll slow it down with a tune like "Not Your Lover" which features vocals and sparse piano accompaniment and a lonesome harmonica - that's it. The highlight, for me, is a slower number called "Stolen Shoes and a Rifle," which reminds me of what pre-Michael McDonald Doobie Brothers could have sounded like had they been less cheesy (or if they were good.)
I believe these guys have the potential to be as big as they want. I don't hear any radio singles on "Furr," but there's no doubt in my mind that they can write radio songs if that's the road they choose to take. There's no telling where they're going from song to song so I wouldn't hazard a guess as to their intentions for the next album. Selfishly, I hope they keep it somewhat under the radar so that I can hoard the enjoyment that I get from hearing such honest, exciting music. I'd also like to see them in more intimate venues rather than cavernous arenas or outdoor sheds. They're definitely one that I want to see live as early and often as possible. You never know where they're going to go from here...
Fleet Foxes â€¢ Sun King (EP) â€¢ Sub Pop
A friend of mine from home recently recommended the Fleet Foxes to me so I picked up their self-titled record which is being packaged with their "Sun King" EP by the folks at Sub Pop Records. This is the Seattle label that first introduced us to Nirvana and a million other great bands. I didn't think I could miss on this one between the label's credibility & my good friend's advice. I still don't think I missed, but I can't be sure. I've never been so conflicted about my own opinion in all of my days.
There's a reason for this. I had given the record one passive listen before I went to see the band live. It was a Tuesday night and I wasn't busy. I thought it would be a good reason to hang out at the legendary Fillmore if nothing else. I had liked what I heard on the recording well enough. I wasn't bowled over by it, but it seemed like pleasant background music (something to listen to while doing chores around the apartment, maybe) and I was curious to see how this band pulls it off live. The record kind of surrounds you, song by song, until the music's overall effect sinks in. These guys have a kind of "traveling minstrels vibe" in the studio, and they have song titles like "White Winter Hymnal," and "Meadowlarks" to further the effect. Their melodies are persistent more than memorable, and they're often delivered via three part (at least) vocal harmony while singing lazy "la-la-la's," and warbling "ooooh-ooooh's." In the studio, these sections are often buried in the mix for texture. Live, they are very much in the front of the sound. And there are lots of them. Often at the beginning of songs. And the effect is monotonous...
The actual recordings were done in a variety of homes and studios according to the liner notes, and the band achieves a real "Earthy" sound which lends itself quite well to the vinyl format. (I continue to listen to the record even though I left the show six songs into the band's set.) One song in particular, called "Mykonos" (from the "Sun King" EP) is actually quite memorable on its own. All of the group's tricks seem to come together on this song, and it feels as ancient as I suspect they intended. (The cover art is a painting by Pieter The Elder Bruegel who passed away in the year 1569 if that gives you an idea about the band's general aesthetic.) Still, I can't quite put my finger on what makes this band so popular. And they are popular. The show I saw sold out well in advance of starting time as did the following night's performance at a different venue in the same town. Their audience knows every word, and they all seem to know when to start dancing at the same time. I predict big things for these guys even if I don't know why.
I've got to hand it to the Fleet Foxes. It's not a style of music that I would typically take much interest in, but they've crafted a piece of work that I keep coming back to even after being run out of the Fillmore by their incessant harmonizing. Normally, an experience like this would color the way I hear the recording, but I seem to have a taste for the record which is a little concerning to me. It doesn't rock, after all, and I was really surprised that my rock-minded buddy recommended it. As it turns out, I was mistaken. He hadn't recommended Fleet Foxes at all. He had recommended their Sub Pop brethren in Blitzen Trapper...
The Temptations â€¢ Cloud Nine â€¢ Motown/Universal
Finally! I've been searching for a copy of the Temptations classic "Cloud Nine" for many moons, but I could never find one cheap enough, or clean enough to warrant plunking down the exorbitant prices that people have traditionally charged for it. Luckily, Universal & Motown have teamed up to re-issue some of the latter company's more classic material as part of the former's "Back to Black" series. Everything about this offering is first rate and my search has ended... unless I see a pristine original in a bargain bin somewhere.
There's no telling what people thought upon first hearing "Cloud Nine" in 1969. Change, as they say, was in the air and the Tempts were doing their part to keep up. The album title track starts things off with a whole new sound and a brand new singer in Dennis Edwards. The band had broken into the national spotlight five years earlier with "The Way You Do The Things You Do," and quickly followed up on that smash with the immortal "My Girl." David Ruffin took lead vocals on that one and stayed in the driver's seat until being let go from the group in 1968. It seems as though Ruffin thought he was solely responsible for the band's early successes, and that his contributions were irreplaceable. He was mistaken. Edwards stepped up to the plate quite nicely with a little more grit and a little more muscle in his voice too. Edwards' delivery wasn't as sweet or smooth as Ruffin's, but "Cloud Nine" didn't require either. And listeners didn't have to wait long to pick up on the changes.
Sly and the Family Stone had recently hit the big time and they changed the game in the process. Funkadelic was making some serious new noise around Detroit at this time too. (The Tempts would eventually draft some of the Funkadelic members into the Motown camp as session musicians for later records.) The writing was on the wall for the Tempts and they proved right away that they could stay in the fray with the funkiest folks around as "Cloud Nine" jumps out of the speakers with a wah-wah guitar intro full of mood and menace. (This would be today's equivalent of Marilyn Manson strumming a lute and singing about his butterfly collection.) The song is a stark societal observation and hearing the Temptations tackle subjects like drug abuse was a whole new bag too. The album's second single, "Run Away Child, Running Wild," kept the tension high, and was an even further departure from the group's more familiar terrain. ("Run Away" clocks in at just under ten minutes long, and even has an extended instrumental section which was edited out of the single release.)
So, the Temptations served notice that they were entering the arena of the counter-culture with two funk-soul songs about drug abuse and societal alienation. What would the rest of the record sound like? The answer: classic Temptations. Record producer Norman Whitfield rounded out the rest of the release with more standard faire such as "Hey Girl," and "Don't Let Him Take Your Love From Me." Was this to placate a fan base that was sure to be confused by this drastic change from the old motif? I'm not sure, but it works. It might work a little better if the band's pedestrian reading of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" had been left off of Side A. Then, we'd have had the funk side and the ballad side. I am, of course, splitting hairs. We're talking about a masterpiece here. The vinyl re-issue is pristine with the original artwork, essay, and a coupon for a digital download of the whole spectacle. My advice is to go pick one up. You can always keep an eye out for an original copy somewhere down the road if you want...
Drive-By Truckers â€¢ Brighter Than Creation's Dark â€¢ New West
Some music wasn't meant to be heard digitally. Zeros and ones just can't capture an emotion the way a groove can. The Drive-By Truckers finally made their catalog available on vinyl last year, and - in my mind - the music finally sounds like it could have all along. I don't know why it didn't happen sooner, but I can guarantee you it wasn't because Patterson Hood (guitars and vocals) didn't want it to. Hood's a record fanatic who claims it's the only format he'll accommodate when it comes time to listen. Maybe he had to wrestle the record company into submission or maybe the folks at New West found the light on their own. Regardless, it's water under the bridge now, and our days are brighter for it.
The Truckers have seven releases available on wax now (and one as Bettye LaVette's band). I would advise you get them all, but you might want to start with "Brighter Than Creation's Dark." It's the most recent (2008), and the most representative of the band's current sound. According to the band's mythology, this record wasn't born out of conflict as some of their previous albums were. Don't let that concern you. There's plenty of grit and whiskey in this mix, and you don't have to look far to find it. Mike Cooley (more guitars and vocals) must have found some inspiration leading up to this one as he takes the lead on seven of the nineteen songs. Hood is often credited as the "front man" for this unit, but I've always anticipated Cooley's tunes with as much excitement as Hood's, and both men turn in some of their best offerings of the band's career on "Brighter." Especially Cooley...
It's interesting to watch a band grow in front of their own expectant audience, and while the Truckers haven't made as drastic a departure from their initial sound as Wilco or R.E.M., they're still promoting a different aesthetic than when they released "Gangstabilly" a little over ten years ago. "Daddy Needs A Drink," for instance, is the sexiest number in the band's considerable repertoire. It's still got the humor, but the tone is as sophisticated as anything I've ever heard from the group. (It helps to have the venerable Spooner Oldham on organ for this effect. He's all over the entire release, but I find his contributions on this one to be particularly moving.) Similarly, "You and Your Crystal Meth" is a simple sketch of a sad situation that needs no further clarification beyond the title. The lyrics don't transmit the mood like the music, and that's where this band excels at this stage of its career. They no longer have to rely on their humor or their habits to get their message across. Other standout tracks include Cooley's "Checkout Time in Vegas," and "Ghost To Most." I could spend all day dissecting and promoting my favorite Cooley lyrics on this record. I don't know what spurred him to such great heights on this one, but I hope it sticks with him.
The vinyl presentation is first rate across the board for all of the Trucker's releases so I guess it was worth the wait. They didn't just release the digital mixes on vinyl and call it a project. Every release was re-mastered for the format and the difference is even more striking than usual. The Truckers have had great artwork on every release and it all looks so much better when you can actually see it. These aren't records so much as artifacts. One day we may look back on an era when real people made real records with real instruments and wonder how we got where we are now. I hope not. But I may go buy second copies of the Trucker's vinyl catalog to keep in my bunker just in case.
Hacienda â€¢ Loud Is The Night â€¢ Alive Naturalsound Records
There are few things in this world that I like more than discovering a great new band. It's nice when someone turns you on to one, but it's nicer when you find it on your own. This doesn't happen very often. I mean, I hear new music all the time, but I find a "favorite new band" once every couple of years or so. I found Hacienda on March 13, 2009 at Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco. They were serving as Dan Auerbach's backing band in support of his first solo album. They played an opening set of their own which I missed. That won't happen again.
Hacienda's lone release so far is called "Loud Is The Night." It's a slice of retro-pop heaven. These guys unapologetically wear their influences on their floral print sleeves, and thank goodness they do. You can hear Big Star, and the Beach Boys, and the Beatles, and a million garage bands that never achieved the notoriety of the "big time." Hacienda consists of three brothers and their cousin. They sing and play together like they've been at it for 20 years. I think they've been at it for less than three. No one's going to fry your senses with guitar solos or vocal histrionics here. This is a band that plays together. Simply and wonderfully. From the opening strains of "She's Got A Hold On Me" to the finale of "Wishbone," this record sucks you in and keeps you right where you are until it's over. Seriously, I have to fight the urge to use exclamation points when I'm writing about these guys.
I can't tell if there's a lead singer in the band or if the members rotate this duty amongst themselves. That's the beauty of it. This is one you can enjoy without ever thinking of such trivialities. Members' individual responsibilities are subservient to the overall sound which is something every band should aspire to. Auerbach's production is about what you would expect from the most prominent half of the Black Keys. "Loud Is The Night" isn't as low down or tough as some of the Keys work, but you'd be safe to assume that the stripped down approach is still in evidence. And it is. But the melodies and harmonies are too pretty to bury in a sea of distortion and fuzz. (That doesn't mean that the record is absent of these elements. It isn't.) The carnival organ seems to gain prominence as the record progresses and this only adds to the music's warmth and often sunny feel. It's a sensual (not sexual) record in that way, and I am happy to have it in my collection this Spring. It's going to be my soundtrack for the season.
Here's the only issue: my vinyl copy looks like it was run over by Hacienda's tour van a couple of times before it was packaged and sent to San Francisco. There is an abundance of paper scuffs and the record itself is flimsy. I was a little disheartened at first site, but it plays perfectly. There is exactly no surface noise and the sonic field is perfectly intact so my complaint is really more of an observation. This is a record that sounds great and looks like hell. I call that rock 'n roll. The first 500 copies were packaged with a CD of the entire album, and I got one so I guess I'm amongst the first in the pool. They're going to have to make some room in the deep end if I have anything to do with it. Go get this one now! (Exclamations are totally in order here.)