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Blitzen Trapper – Black River Killer EP (Album Review)

In 2007 Blitzen Trapper’s third album Wild Mountain Nation drew favourable comparisons with the wonky indie pop of Pavement circa Wowee Zowee. On the follow-up, last year’s Furr, the Oregon band narrowed their hitherto scattershot approach to focus on the country-rock which was prominent, but by no means dominant, on its predecessor.

The Black River Killer EP finds Blitzen Trapper honing their sound further still. This is still, unquestionably, a country-rock release. It consists of the title track – an excerpt from Furr – plus six songs that until now have only been available as a CDR that’s been flogged on tour from the band’s merchandise table. That description rather screams the words ‘inessential toss-off’ at the potential customer, but that would greatly misrepresent this EP. The six new-ish songs are thoughtfully written, professionally recorded and performed with considerable proficiency. In short, it’s pretty good.

First, the title track. It seems that Blitzen Trapper are now so comfortable with their status as a country-rock act that they feel the need to add a Johnny Cash-style murder ballad to their oeuvre, and that’s precisely what we get with Black River Killer. It’s likely to seem familiar to any listener – and not just to those who’ve already heard the identical album version.

Black River Killer is a macabre tale, written from the perspective of a murderer and beginning with the discovery of his latest victim (“They found a girl’s body in an open pit / Her mouth was sewn shut but her eyes were still wide…”). The narrator then charts his ensuing brushes with the law; the lyrics are a veritable litany of Western/Gothic imagery – there are sheriffs, sins, “the key to the kingdom” and, er, horses.

It’s an accomplished song but it also feels as if the band are trapped within a stylistic straightjacket. Fortunately the remainder of the EP finds Blitzen Trapper in a more relaxed mood. Silver Moon and Preacher’s Sister’s Boy exhibit the amiably shuffling sound that’s become the band’s signature, aided by, respectively, harmonica and a high-pitched synth.

The best of the bunch might be Going Down. It boasts a debonair melody which recalls the very best AOR of the 1970s, and hints that the influence of Steely Dan may loom large over the next album. Of the seven tracks, only the aimless Black Rock feels like filler, and even then its moody acoustics serve as an essential throat-clearing exercise before Big Black Bird’s Lynyrd Skynyrd-indebted boogie closes the set.

The Black River Killer EP isn’t the best place for Blitzen Trapper newbies to start – that would be Furr or Wild Mountain Nation. But, as a stopgap for existing fans, it’s well worth a download or – if one’s feeling old-fashioned – a trip to the music emporium.