Despite its reputation as the nation’s indie-rock mecca, it has always seemed that Portland’s music scene allows for many more stylistic voices than are widely recognized.
Despite its reputation as the nation’s indie-rock mecca, it has always seemed that Portland’s music scene allows for many more stylistic voices than are widely recognized. Its aesthetic is fluid enough to allow multiple ideas to stew within its confines, eventually combining into sounds that are entirely unique to their time and place. If ever there was a group to epitomize this opportunity for creative synthesis, it is Blitzen Trapper.
Natives of Portland, the men of Blitzen Trapper had been playing together for several years before a “crystallization event” in 2000 solidified the group’s lineup into its current membership. In retrospect, it seems fitting that this event took place on the foothills of Mt. Hood, as the group would later go on to tap into the region’s frontier mentality with a deftness of style that few Northwest bands have displayed. Building off the foundation of singer/guitarist Eric Earley’s songwriting, the sextet combines dense guitar noise with a penchant for Louis Lamour and creates a sound that dwells comfortably in the realms of both indie-rock and Americana. Their self-titled and self-produced debut proudly brandishes this duplicity, combining country and rock ‘n’ roll with a nonchalance that suggests a refreshing lack of calculated cool.
Blitzen Trapper’s first release set a strong precedent that has been carried through to subsequent efforts: quality songwriting backed by dense production and a DIY aesthetic. Having self-recorded and released both of their previous albums, it was not until earlier this year that Blitzen Trapper was able to actually tour on their material. Rather, they have spent a majority of their career creating professional quality recordings and promoting them through word of mouth and a distribution encompassing only “a few local record stores in Portland,” said band leader Earley. However, unlike most bands still relying heavily on their day jobs, Blitzen Trapper began to garner praise for their efforts almost as soon as they were made public.
Early reviews by Pitchfork Media put Blitzen Trapper on the national map long before they manufactured the calculated marketing blitzkrieg usually associated with major album releases. This early attention was certainly warranted though, for Earley’s songwriting and the band’s meaty arrangements made for an unplaceable wall of acoustic intricacy that radiated the unassuming joy with which the group goes about its songs.
Word of such quality and lack of pretension managed to spread itself organically through the Northwest-despite the band’s inability to mount full-scale marketing campaigns. And it was this slow perpetual groundswell of recognition that led to the band’s signing to Seattle-based Sub Pop Records shortly after the release of their third album, Wild Mountain Nation. With a characteristic lack of effect Earley states that “the opportunity (to sign with Sub Pop) just kind of arose” and that the ability to rely on “all the jobs the label can do” was an unrehearsed yet fortunate event that is likely to drastically change the commercial fate of Blitzen Trapper’s subsequent releases.
With Wild Mountain Nation, more so than with their previous efforts, the group has managed to fuse their sound into an intricate whole of what were once freestanding elements. The album still smacks heavily of country and bluegrass–but these stylistic voices are fused seamlessly with the angular noise of mid-1990s art rock bombast. What truly ties the work together, though, is the palpable energy with which Earley and company create their music. On tracks such as “Wild Mountain Nation” and “Sci-Fi Kid” it’s readily apparent that these lads believe in every note they lay down and that Earley’s claim that he “just (writes) good songs” may well be the complete and accurate truth.
Fortunately for the rest of us, this group is unlikely to remain in obscurity for much longer, seeing as their recent signing to Sub Pop has allowed them access to the full-scale marketing armada that their past efforts have lacked. Wild Mountain Nation has recently made Pitchfork Media’s “Best New Music” list along with a slew of other critical accolades, and has been easily outselling the group’s previous records and putting them on course to be making a living of their music “within the next year or so.” The infectious joy of Blitzen Trapper’s music has been a catalyst for their ever-expanding recognition and a true signifier of the quality that the Northwest is capable of nurturing. This fall, their 21st century Americana will find its true niche in the national subconscious as they take to the road to push forward the borders of an ever-expanding Wild Mountain Nation.
Blitzen Trapper plays Berbati’s Pan on Sept. 17. Doors open at 8 p.m. and tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the show. The show is all-ages.