Blitzen Trapper seem an interesting test case as to why some bands cross over into the mainstream and others remain resolutely more admired than liked. When they supported Wilco in the UK a few years ago, their sunny harmonies, assured roots rock and their occasional psychedelic flourishes made them a great choice of opening act. Yet it was Bella Union signings Fleet Foxes that the British public embraced.
American Goldwing is Blitzen Trapper’s sixth album in eight years, so they are not shy of material, in spite of remaining something of a cult. Earlier albums had a ragged charm, equal parts Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Pavement. Some of that character has now been abandoned in favour of a more streamlined but perhaps less engaging product.
American Goldwing is typically confident but it is increasingly hard to find a distinctive voice for Blitzen Trapper. There’s a foray into Bowie-tinged glam rock on Your Crying Eyes or the more familiar influence of Neil Young on My Home Town. Girl In A Coat has the instantly recognisable twang of The Byrds. Calling a track highly reminiscent of The Eagles Taking It Easy Too Long at least shows the group are aware of their borrowings here. Elsewhere, lead vocalist Eric Earley adopts a ruminative twang in his voice that suggests the touring with Wilco made a lasting impression on his own songwriting.
This is all very earnest and admirable, but anyone hoping for some of the raw, angular qualities of the group’s excellent Wild Mountain Nation album will be sorely disappointed. The closest the group get to this is the scuzzy opener Might Find It Cheap and it almost sounds out of place in the context of the album. The title track is punctuated by some strange noises and effects, but the overall effect is still warm and safe.
Bands have to develop, of course, and there is a sense that Blitzen Trapper are knocking on the door of the mainstream with American Goldwing. It’s not a sudden or particularly unexpected move. Last year’s Destroyer Of The Void also had some summery, highly accessible moments even if it failed to make any great commercial strides for the group. American Goldwing too has its moments of ambitious wonder. Love The Way You Walk Away is a shimmering, glorious delight with a brilliantly memorable chorus. This is the kind of song that could conceivably bring the band to a new audience, but without compromising their songwriting talents. The closing Stranger In A Strange Land is at least touching, with more than a hint of the late, great Townes Van Zandt.
Yet much of American Goldwing is a little overproduced and nondescript. Plodding rhythms predominate and there’s a prevalent sense of nostalgia that sometimes threatens to become a little syrupy, not least because of the numerous cliches about highways or the open road. Sometimes it’s all just a little too polite and lacking in bite. It’s hard to predict whether this will be a temporary glitch in Blitzen Trapper’s long and mostly fruitful career, or whether this is the start of a new trajectory for the band. Either way, it’s something of a disappointment.