Blitzen Trapper’s latest effort, American Goldwing, is so named because of the Honda Goldwing motorcycle belonging to lead singer Eric Earley’s brother-in-law. When Earley was young, he got trapped beneath the weight of the bike after a goofy make-believe ride gone awry. The incident and the associated echoes of being trapped provided a lot of musical and lyrical inspiration for the album, and it shows, though not perhaps in the way the Portland folk-rockers intended. American Goldwing is a record that finds itself trying to satisfy the two major folk camps—the grungier, garage fans and the acolytes of softer ballads a la Neil Young—and coming up just short of both.
That’s not to say it fails entirely; there are definitely some strong tracks here. Opener “Might Find It Cheap” features crisp guitars alongside layer upon layer of falsetto—a perfect mountain-man rocker. “Girl In A Coat” recalls the best Crowded House songs and marries harmonica to steel guitar in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed like a lot of the generic alt-country out there. And the penultimate (and most immediate) track, “Street Fighting Sun,” is a terrific, bluesy take on 1960s psychedelia—complete with a delightfully muddy guitar solo.
It’s the slower songs, laden with tired country-boy aphorisms, that give American Goldwing a sense of bloat. “My Home Town” aims for the pastoral nostalgia of Dylan with heaps of banjo and oohs and aahs, but its cheesy nature-boy lyrics like “Tall trees talking all along the shore/Where the wood meets the river at the forest floor” are more “Colors Of The Wind” than “Blowing In The Wind.” And the foot-stomps and yoohoos that open the rollicking “Your Crying Eyes” turn an otherwise solid garage song into an odd hoedown that, for all its affable energy, still manages to be grating.
Nobody can fault Blitzen Trapper for trying to cover all of the bases and have a softer, laid-back counterpart to every folk-punk gem. The band did a stellar job of it on 2007’s Wild Mountain Nation and 2008’s Furr. Perhaps the issue here is that wistful tunes recalling quiet country life don’t exactly resonate with most listeners in an age where nearly everyone—even in the Oregon backwoods the band sings of—has, at the very least, a computer. Or maybe it’s the fact that despite the success of acts like Mumford And Sons, most people—this author included—cringe when they hear the heavy-handed sigh of a steel guitar. Still, it’s the aforementioned things that make a Blitzen Trapper album, well, a Blitzen Trapper album, and it’s doubtful that this LP will cause long-time fans to lose interest. Then again, don’t look to American Goldwing to gain the group new ones.