Music Reviews
Black River Killer EP

Blitzen Trapper Black River Killer EP

(Sub Pop) Buy it from Insound Rating - 5/10

“It was just a little while past the sunset strip. They found a girl’s body in an open pit,” narrates singer Eric Earley on Black River Killer, the leadoff song from the EP of the same name. That leading line introduces a murder ballad with characters that could be fugitives from a Neil Yong song, or even something by Charlie Daniels. Its graphic depictions of the crime scene details (“Her mouth was sewn shut, but her eyes were still wide.”) and the following violence are delivered in complete sentences with a slight twang, taking the listener into a remarkably traditional style of American folk as updated for the 2000s, partly by using a lonesome synthesizer when another band might use a fiddle.

The rest of the accompaniment is spare and predominantly acoustic, making the lyrics easy to catch. Lines like, “Well, the sheriff let me go with a knife and a song, so I took the first train up to Oregon, and I killed the first man that I came upon, ‘cause the devil works quick, you know, it don’t take long,” are terse as if quoted from a Cormac McCarthy novel. Like the Man With No Name, the lyrics come quick, they do their job, and then they’re gone.

There are two very good selections from this record: the aforementioned title track and Big Black Bird, which is one of the best guitar-driven southern rock-style songs they’ve recorded. Unfortunately, Blitzen Trapper has already released the former on 2008’s Furr, the brilliant record that moved them further into the folk-rock end of the indie spectrum.

The rest of the tracks are not necessarily bad; they just don’t stick in your memory. A distorted harmonica can’t quite rescue the otherwise bland country rocker Silver Moon, and the melodies of pieces like Going Down tend to meander. The group has all but eradicated the noise-punk and Hendrix-inspired elements of its sound for this record and instead sounds more like The Shins than ever before. Which is a more-or-less impartial way of saying the band appears to have abandoned much of its edge. The songwriting is still strong, but the accompanying sound is somewhat dull. Preacher’s Sister’s Boy and the Travis-picked Black Rock share these problems, but they end in less than two minutes, so there’s barely even time to yawn. It’s as if the songs themselves are in a hurry to reach the EP’s finale.

Big Black Bird will remind many people of Skynyrd, and not just because it has “bird” in the title. With a bluesy guitar motif as its anchor, the band again takes a narrative-centered approach to songwriting, only this time the story seems to come out of a sailor’s log. The production is dry as fallen leaves, which fits with the autumnal tone of the disc, and the track is an upbeat contrast to the Southern gothic-style opener, almost as if the musicians are laughing at themselves for their earlier seriousness.

The Black River Killer EP originated as a self-released disc the band sold at its concerts. However, with the exception of the final track, the disc does not make a very reflective souvenir of a Blitzen Trapper show. Rather, the EP works much better as a B-side companion to Furr, because neither the energy nor the ratio of good songs to so-so songs is high enough for the record to stand on its own.