By the fall of 2003, when Eric Earley’s Portland, Ore., outfit Blitzen Trapper released its self-titled debut on Lidkercow, alt-country was in fairly desperate need of its own alternative. Tweedy was too far afield, Adams was too far gone, and the subgenre teetered on the brink of becoming a slur. A track like Earley and company’s "Whiskey Kisser" was a blessed antidote to post-Whiskeytown blues, serving up dirt-road stylings at their least stylish: bilious slide guitar, freewheeling harmonica, tarted-up kid sisters, and maverick state cops. "Kisser" and the surrounding album weren’t country, exactly, but they were close enough to count as smashing correctives.
Four years on, Blitzen Trapper have executed a neat roundabout: they’re no longer plausibly in alt-country’s orbit, but they’re still solving problems with scenes. The group’s third LP, Wild Mountain Nation (Lidkercow), which arrived last June, unearthed one sort of West Coast music in the context of another, juxtaposing rambling ’70s highway rock with the skuzzy experimentalism of a newer Oregon. The classic-rock turn is at its most sublime on the title track, a pile of juiced-up blues riffs and lyrics so inexactly mellow they’re nearly a caricature ("When the red moon wanes / We’ll be moving on the plains / Through the tall grass out to the sea"). "Wild Mountain Nation" almost feels engineered to hit our sweet spots, which is worth noting as a development in indie theory. Within a pretty asexual music culture, Blitzen Trapper seem to be authorizing a return to the libidinal anthem. Given the massive hooks and field-and-stream rhyme schemes, the big rock hit is back!
It’s nowhere near that simple, even if simplicity is just what a song like "Wild Mountain Nation" promotes. The album touches on other tributaries of classic rock: Byrds-ish Rickenbacker gambols in "Futures and Folly," warm canyon folk on sun-dappled ballad "Summer Town." Yet Nation insistently neighbors these songs and often imbues them with heavy experimental turns ranging from raucous guitar noise to bleeping keyboards. Looked at suspiciously, the record might be propping up crowd-pleasing hooks just so it can set them alight.
But as Earley tells it, the Blitzen Trapper project is far less sinister: he’s a studio rat by nature, and the self-immolation is mostly a function of curiosity. "A good song can take a lot of abuse," the bandleader commented by e-mail. "Sometimes I enjoy seeing how much sonic abuse a well-crafted piece can take and still seem timeless or nostalgic." He’s not callous about his music’s grimy elements either. He’s actually hypersensitive to them. Though Nation‘s eponymous song comes off as a clean tune, rowdy only in familiar and approachable ways, Earley pronounced its production "very rough and unfriendly." He may be the only one surprised it took off.
Since Nation, the group has released an EP, Cool Love #1 (Lidkercow), its four songs gleefully denying a current pressing question: whether Nation‘s Led Zepplinstyle jags were a detour or something more permanent. After two tunes’ worth of weighty rock guitars, Cool Love abruptly regresses to country, ending up in "Jesus on the Mainline," a flurry of electro-tinged banjo and harmonica. Earley describes the next full-length, which he’s begun work on, as taking a third way: heavy on the hooks but distinct from the overall Nation sound. So it may be that all of the attempts to parse Blitzen Trapper’s music as rock or country miss the point. The band is, in a sense, the purest sort of alternative act, ready to ding up whatever sort of Americana comes across its path.
With Fleet Foxes, Here Here, and Sholi
Feb. 28, 8:30 p.m., $12
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF