Here’s the question: How much can you fault a band for doing what they’re best at?
That’s the main quandary that’s bound to come up when you hear Blitzen Trapper’s new album, American Goldwing. The Portland group, whose early records were adventurous and surprisingly twisted Americana-pop records, have been straightening out their sound for the past few years. 2008’s Furr focused mostly on Dylan-esque country-rock (even if it had its nice tangents) and since then that sound is where the band has bedded down. 2010’s Destroyer of the Void bounced along, kicking up a modest dust, and American Goldwing continues the tradition, evoking the worn highways and dusty trails of American and its music.
Eric Earley, the band’s leader, describes the album as a chance for the band to let “[its] early influences hang out there for all to see” and he is absolutely right. As a celebration of the music the band was brought up on, American Goldwing works well. It’s got a guileless charm to it, a feeling that the players truly love this sound. And if it has a limited scope, the album has no shortage of hooks with which to fill that focus. The crunchy “Your Crying Eyes” is the perfect rocker for blasting out the windows of a vintage sports car. “Fletcher” combines barroom pianos with Allman-touched fills, which may not surprise but it’s no less effective for its predictability. The funky thump of the title track gives some low-end to their country-rock vibe, and the dusty ballad “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which closes the record, shows the more lonesome side of the album’s perpetual wanderlust.
This is very much about hitting the road and finding what there is to find, a very romantic, and worn-in, American dream to be sure. But, as on previous albums, Blitzen Trapper prove up to continuing that dream. Their approach isn’t new, but it’s also not affected in any way. At least most of the time. Unlike the previous records, which felt effortless and as a result more timeless than revivalist, there are moments here where the influences hold too much sway. The melody of “Stranger in a Strange Land,” good though it is, sounds a little too close to an early Dylan tune. “Girl in a Coat” suffers from a similar fate, while in other places it isn’t melody but nostalgia and hurt that feel borrowed from other sources. “Love the Way You Leave,” for example, with tales of Grandad’s kitchen and drinking too much, sounds like a harmless cover, a tale too old for them to tell in a convincing voice. “Street Fighting Sun”, tries to break from the formula with overdrive guitar fills, but its subject matter and riffage still feel dated despite the effort.
Such is the balance American Goldwing tries to strike. Destroyer of the Void — along with the Black River Killer EP and Furr before it — paid plenty of respect to the band’s influences, but it was their personality that always shone through. Here, though, they sometimes get lost in their own love of the past. For an album that talks so much about hitting the road, about finding the next thing, it often finds the band stuck in what it already knows. Thankfully, Blitzen Trapper are damned good at what they already knows, which makes American Goldwing solid. The trouble here is what we know: That they’re capable of more. So the question becomes how much we hold our expectations against them, and the way you answer that question will shape how you feel about their latest offering.