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|November 13-19, 2008
Blitzen Trapper, Furr
by Dan Weiss
Remember Gomez? Bluesy, Beck-y Brits, possibly the biggest underdogs to win the Mercury Music Prize? If my hype files aren’t missing any RAM, I believe they were promoted as the “band that could do a set between Phish and Pavement.” This was — as is the nature of hype — a generalization. However, here’s oddball Oregon sextet Blitzen Trapper to excavate the analogy once again, more accurately and simply. This band isn’t a growing wad of adjectives to drop about their eclecticism; they’re an established concept turning their craft up a volume.
Released to surprise Web acclaim last year, Trapper’s druggy Wild Mountain Nation was praised for its uncanny dance to Pavement’s Wowee Zowee in splintered lockstep. But Wowee Zowee was hardly Pavement’s finest hour, and in turn Nation’s great songs (its title tune, or “Devil A Go-Go”) suffered from being too loose and amateurish to know what to do with them. It got by on offhand charm and cracked tunes.
On Furr, Blitzen Trapper, now signed to luminary Sub Pop, glues up what was lacking, no matter how intentional it was then. Production is more careful, goofs are omitted, musicianship is tighter, giving us 2008’s third and best alternative to prime Neil Young. My Morning Jacket’s good-faith effort to weirden up put off some chai-sippers, who in turn sought out Fleet Foxes’ Starbucks-approved mildness.
But those of us who cram for jam will prefer the crackling electric guitars of “Gold for Bread” and “War on Machines.” Those guitars still evoke Pavement, mind you, but with a new, Keith Richards-like efficiency that still knows how to fall off the rails when the time is right. Even the folkier stuff (“Furr,” “Stolen Shoes & a Rifle”) breathes only when necessary. In under 40 minutes, Furr’s well-sequenced cycle never outpaces itself. And Eric Earley’s surprising new vocal tricks are exactly the pleasures you want from a good band that gains complexity without pretensions.
Danielson, Trying Hartz (First Fruits ’94-’04)
by Doug Wallen
The preeminent weirdo of the Christian indie-rock scene, Daniel Smith, has built a cottage industry around permutations of his longtime Danielson project, including collaborations with his family and a pre-breakout Sufjan Stevens. On the heels of several reissues on Secretly Canadian and his own Sounds Familyre imprint comes this decade-spanning, two-disc primer, rich with live and alternate versions. Most of Smith’s squeakily sung creations sound like loopy children’s songs, with traces of jug-band folk and religion wafting gently in their manic pop breeze. These 28 tunes are more affable than annoying, though, and it’s easy to see how Smith has managed to influence so many musicians over the years, even inspiring the award-winning documentary Danielson: A Family Movie. That said, it’s certainly not for everybody.
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition
by Nick Cristiano
How many times can you expand a classic? In the case of this 1968 Johnny Cash landmark, at least twice. This three-disc set builds on the 1999 reissue by adding the complete second show from that January day and a DVD documentary.
The music remains a thrilling distillation of the Man in Black’s timeless appeal. Backed by his Tennessee Three as well as Carl Perkins and June Carter (not yet his wife), Cash establishes an immediate rapport with the inmates: His empathy for them, and by extension all the downtrodden, is immediately apparent, but he also exudes a whiff of danger and rebellion himself. The result is an atmosphere crackling with energy.
The DVD includes interviews with children Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash, Marty Stuart and Merle Haggard, and frames Cash’s performance in the context of his career. Most touchingly, it also tells the sad story of Glen Sherley, the inmate whose song Cash sang that day at Folsom.
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