I don't know if the members of Blitzen Trapper have beards, but they sure sound like they do — their music is palpably rustic after the current fashion, but they're also astutely modern, and the contradiction is summed up, appropriately, in the title track. "Wild Mountain Nation" sounds like a glammy Grateful Dead, if that's not too ridiculous a juxtaposition — the halting sweetness of the vocal melody recalls "Uncle John's Band," minus the hippie schmaltz, but it's also unmistakably 21st-century indie rock.
With remarkable, concept album-like consistency, head Trapper Eric Earley's lyrics hew to rural imagery of horses and rivers and trees. See, Blitzen Trapper is going up the country, like so many bands did early in the Nixon era. Back then, electric guitars were the sound of modernity; the point was, they'd nonetheless permeated the hinterlands — it was an electric nation, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters. Nowadays, synthesizers, ProTools and samplers are available to even the most remote hayseeds, and so Blitzen Trapper's thoroughly American music is adorned with cheap digital baubles because, well, because everything else is. Even the strange, hiccuping riff of opener "Devil's A-Go-G0" sounds like a glitching CD.
Earley has called the "Wild Mountain Nation" concept "a strange dream of freaks, decay and collapse." It's not difficult to figure out what he was alluding to. We do consider ourselves a Wild Mountain Nation — no matter how far we've drifted from the values and ways of life that existed at the beginning of our national history, many of us still fancy ourselves frontiersmen who require things like SUVs, high-calorie diets and guns. So there are rustic songs like the catchy singalong "Country Caravan," the sublimely balmy acoustic ballad "Summer Town," and the hicked-out harmonica-and-jaw-harp stomper "Wild Mtn. Jam," but they co-exist with a big ol 'ball of galloping fuzz like "Woof & Warp of the Quiet Giant's Hem" and the sparkling and tuneful treble kicker "Sci-Fi Kid" (which fittingly morphs into a giddy synth-pop cover of itself).
The mixtures aren't just old-timey vs. modern — this Portland sextet is an exemplar of the file-sharing age, when music history has become one big downloadable soup. So many musical influences have become divorced from their original social context that there's no longer any barrier to melding the Dead and XTC (the delightful "Futures and Folly"), Beck and Hendrix ("Miss Spiritual Tramp") or Love and Mercury Rev ("Sci-Fi Kid") since few people who originally guarded the distinctions so zealously (basically, anyone born before 1972) are listening anyway. So these guys wave their bands in the air like they just don't care, and it's refreshing.
Much virtual ink has been spilled on the way Blitzen Trapper's folky pop resembles Pavement and Neutral Milk Hotel. But that's leaving out the relatively uncool holy ghost of that slack-rock trinity: Beck. In fact, Blitzen Trapper often seems intent on channeling Beck, or at least Beck before he exhausted the possibilities of Dylan-meets-the-Beastie-Boys (and thus, apparently, the extent of his talent). So although several tunes here ("Murder Babe," "Hot Tip/Tough Cub," "Devil's A-Go-Go" and, most blatantly, the aforementioned "Miss Spiritual Tramp") tap into various aspects of the Scientologist with the Devil's haircut, Blitzen Trapper write better songs than Mr. Hansen has in many years, and that's the saving grace of their derivative side.
Earley is the kind of guy who, when asked if he likes his own music, will simply reply "I guess so." Dude is so slack, it makes me positively nostalgic for the early '90s. And yet the band has turned out three self-released albums in four years. Their meticulously sloppy music contains precisely the slacker paradox embodied by avatars like Beck, Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement: seemingly offhanded and yet clearly painstaking at the same time. Here, the drums are overdriven to the point of distortion and the guitars are cloaked in lo-fi huzz, which guarantees a baseline classic lo-fi sound throughout the record, from the pastoral folkers to the shaggy rockers. And yet for all the indie slosh, there's nicely wrought songwriting, singalong melodies and someone in there who's peeling off some accomplished guitar licks — the guitar break in the Bowiesque "Murder Babe" recalls "Mississippi Queen."
Earley sticks to mainly woodsy themes but on "Sci-Fi Kid" he can't resist a sharp little generational statement: "We're just sci-fi kids making dirty rhymes… I'm just a digital brat with an insect mind." Which also rather nails the album's Blade Runner-ish take on technology — in practice, hi-tech always winds up getting battered and grimy, far from the fantasy of a sterile white future, and used for things its inventors never dreamed of. As Wild Mountain Nation sings from the bottom of its hybrid heart, the future is now.