I love the idea of the Traveling Wilburys. They, along with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY), are a super-group that embodies a musical paradox: A large group of the greatest artists of all time resulting in mediocre music. It’s mind boggling, really.
Things become even more confusing when a contemporary band apparently takes influence from these sorts of super-groups, only to sound better than the super-groups could have ever hoped.
The band that does the Wilburys better than the Wilburys is Blitzen Trapper. It’s not that Blitzen Trapper even sounds like the Traveling Wilburys, but they use all the same sort of musical artillery. There’s the freewheeling harmonica of Bob Dylan and the heartfelt country-pop of Roy Orbison. You get the experimental nature of George Harrison and the straight-up rock and roll grit of Tom Petty. Then there are hints of Neil Young’s crooning tenor and the melodic smarts of the Byrds. But somehow, Furr, Blitzen Trapper’s fourth full-length on SubPop Records, is even more diverse than the Traveling Wilburys and CSNY put together.
Hailing from Portland, Ore., Eric Earley heads up this Northwesterly tinged folk-rock outfit. Folk has seen a sort of resurgence over the past few years as a result of artists like Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. Earley believes it is an appropriate response to the cultural climate.
“I think folk music is very natural music,” he says. “Right now it’s a reaction to all of the digital media that is being pushed on people nowadays.”
But it also looks strangely familiar to the days in which Dylan brought folk music to the masses. “It’s also connected to the politics of the time, we’re seeing this dichotomy to the 60’s with the war going on, and a lot of lying politicians,” he says. “I think the music sort of mirrors that environment.”
Blitzen Trapper sounds like any rock/indie/folk band you’ve heard before, except this band believes deeply in what they’re doing. Sincerity rings clear on Furr, which goes a long way in 2008.
On the title track Earley sings, “I lost the taste for judging right from wrong. For my flesh had turned to fur, yeah. And my thoughts, they surely were turned to instinct and obedience to God.”
He’s singing from the perspective of a man who has forsaken his humanity to be adopted by wolves. Forest noises and animal sounds sneak around the background of this gentle folk song, recalling a late night walk in the deep woods. It is a song about sincerity, being true to yourself, as Earley sings in the chorus, “You can wear your fur like the river on fire. But you better be sure if you’re makin’ God a liar.”
In the end, he throws off his fur to pursue a relationship with a woman, but encounters a more complicated life in the process. This ‘obedience to God’ that Earley sings of is closely aligned with a natural state of being. “We pursue something that’s impossible,” Earley says. “Whereas what’s natural is achievable on its own.”
Earley explains the thought process in writing the song: “I was trying to create the picture of, ‘What is obedience to God?’ And it’s instinct; it’s what plants and animals do all the time. We desire that, as people. We’re always struggling to fit ourselves into the natural world, and we don’t quite fit for some reason. So that creates all sorts of spiritual or religious groups.
Earley isn’t sure why we always try to seek out the impossible, but he sees a value in the chase. “I think it’s worth singing about,” he says.
The religious themes in Furr are far more thought-provoking than they are preachy. But they’re not painfully serious either, there’s a sense of fun throughout the album that helps the listener digest some of the more introspective lyrics.
In “God and Suicide”, Earley sings, “I can live with God and with suicide. The same thing holds if I close my eyes. It’s a truth so pure it can kill you dead. A taste of heaven mixed with hell inside of my head.”
There is a great power that cannot be taken lightly when contemplating the person of God. And Blitzen Trapper sings of it poetically.
Explore Blitzen Trapper:
Live in Concert
Music Video: Wild Mountain Nation
Daytrotter session w/ music from Furr
MP3 of the song, “Furr”