Blitzen Trapper

It was on September 23, 2008 that Blitzen Trapper, after putting out three albums on its own label, released its fourth full-length album, Furr, via Sub Pop. At that time, it was a record that captured exactly where the band’s frontman, Eric Earley, found himself, both literally and metaphorically, geographically and existentially. Not that the Portland-based musician actually remembers much about the creation of the record’s 13 intriguing, spellbinding songs. Or, more specifically, what its songs actually mean, either now or then. Instead, Furr, stands as a kind of tribute and elegy to the city that inspired it, but that, a decade later, no longer exists.
“What I was trying to do with those recordings,” explains Earley, “was capture this kind of atmosphere that I was feeling and which pervaded the city at that time. I think I was attempting to capture what Portland was at the time and what it felt like to me. That city is gone now. Old Portland, we call it, but Old Portland has disappeared. But this record gives me the feeling of those times and this city— when it was poor and dumpy and really drug-addled. And it also captures the magic of the outlying rural areas that has slowly changed as well.”
That magic can be heard in each of these songs, and while the city may have vanished from sight – replaced by a newer, richer, shinier and bigger version of itself – its elegance and fractured beauty is preserved within the bones of this record. These songs exist as vivid snapshots of that time, ones that recall the city as it was. At the same time – and while Earley insists he was only trying to capture what Portland was at the time – there’s a mythology within the lyrics and the music, an imagined, semi-fictional vision of Portland and the Pacific Northwest, a kind of parallel universe to the one that actually exists.
“Back then, the city was this really weird place,” says Earley. “It was really bizarre. Weird stuff would happen. And it was much poorer and much smaller. It wasn’t as structured and rich as it is now. It was a totally different place. That’s why it’s funny when people talk about Portland – I’m like well, if you didn’t live here back then you’ll never experience what that was like but if you listen to this record you’ll get a little taste of it. So in that sense, it feels very real and non-mythical to me.”
That said, that doesn’t mean these songs are all based in reality. There are glimpses of God – and of American Christianity – throughout them, not least in the mournful folk narrative of “Black River Killer” and “God & Suicide.” The former is a made-up tale about an anonymous murderer on a killing spree which Earley cites as being about “the mindless violence that Americans consume every single day – in film and books and everything – and what does it mean for us to consume that content and make it a part of us?” The latter is a shimmering, more upbeat track that’s an attempt to commit to tape an ineffable feeling that Earley felt within him but which, after all these years, he’s still unable to pinpoint exactly.
“I can’t tell you what that song’s about,” he says. “I know what it feels like, but I don’t know what it actually literally means. But the words and the music gave me this feeling as I was writing it that made sense at the time. I feel like there’s a feeling of longing that accompanies this record somehow, and there’s this weird longing to be set free. I feel that’s what kind of pervades this record – a melancholic longing for something that we can’t obtain. In “God & Suicide” it’s almost like—and it’s me obviously—but it’s almost like whoever is saying those words is saying to himself ‘Well I’ve got two choices. Either I kill myself or I somehow make my peace with whatever God is.”
Not all the songs have such existential explanations. The soft acoustic jangle of the title track is full of wistful longing, while the plaintive, poignant piano of “Not Your Lover” is a forlorn love – or loss of love – song full of tender sadness. That’s one of a few songs that wouldn’t actually exist had the band—completed at the time by Brian Adrian Koch (drums, vocals), Michael Van Pelt (bass), Erik Menteer (guitar, Moog), Drew Laughery (keyboards) and Marty Marquis (guitar, vocals, melodica)—not found an old warped piano in the hallway of Sally Mack’s School Of Dance, the Portland building which housed the band’s studio. Needless to say, the discovery definitely helped shape the direction of the record.
“That song,” says Earley, “wouldn’t exist, I don’t think, without that piano. I remember sitting at that thing when I first pulled it in and tinkering with it and just sort of writing that one right away. So it probably would have been a slightly different record. A lot of the songs I wrote on piano and I wouldn’t have because I didn’t have one.”
That’s also partly because Earley admits he wasn’t trying to write an album at that time, but write songs to perfect the recording technique he’d been honing when making the band’s previous full-length, 2007’s Wild Mountain Nation. As such, around three albums’ worth of material was recorded during the sessions for Furr, and it’s a selection of those that comprise the bonus material for this anniversary edition of the record. From the dulcet, chugging tones of “War Is Placebo” to the carefree, summer whimsy of “Ballad Of Bird Love”—a song driven by that same piano—and the melancholy folk tale waltz of “On My Way To The Bay”, the ten outtakes included here offer even further insight into Earley’s creative mindset and the feeling—whatever it is, exactly—that sits at the center of these songs. Written largely between the hours of 11pm and the morning—something that was possible because, in between tours, Earley was living in the studio building—Furr is a very nocturnal album, full of the wonder and the mystery of the night.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the fact Earley wasn’t trying to make a record per se, Furr—is an impressively cohesive album, and its counterpart bonus tracks are as well. Much of that is down to Earley’s fastidious recording techniques, using old analogue equipment to create a sound that was inherently nostalgic but also, at the time, anyway, entirely unusual.
“At the time,” he says, “I was going for a very specific sound. And it’s funny, because it’s a sound that you hear so much nowadays—bands have this recording aesthetic that’s very, very lo-fi and almost exactly what I was doing back then, but I was doing it with machinery that was meant to do that as opposed tobands now, who are doing it with modern digital plug-ins. At the time, I was just making what I’d like to hear and I didn’t know if anyone else will like it. It sounds old and distorted—the sound I’d hear in my head when riding my bike around town at 2 in the morning.”
Those days (and nights) may have faded into the past, but they’re very much present within the fabric of Furr. A decade on, they sound just as magical and mystical.
Not, of course, that the band is just relying on the past glory of this record. Far from it. A decade on from the release of Furr, has released five more critically acclaimed and achingly beautiful records. The band hasn’t loosened its ambitions, either. In 2017, the band put together Wild And Reckless a full-production theater event that ran for a month at Portland’s Center Stage theater and which also spawned last year’s full-length of the same name. There are plenty of plans for the future in the works, too. But for now, just for a little while, it’s time to revel in the joy and sorrow of a time and place that no longer exists—except of course, in a few hearts and minds, and in these wonderfully wistful songs.

We spray our hair into submission, upright to attention. Marching to no orders, imagination has no borders. Well lucky that.'

"Me and Jasper," from Luluc's third album Sculptor, is a confident challenge to small-town insularity, lilting yet vigilant, and championed by a defiant guitar solo from the band's friend J Mascis. It's a reflection on a common pitfall of adolescence; limitless possibility battling constant obstruction. "My own experiences as a teen were often fraught" says songwriter and vocalist Zoe Randell. "The small town I grew up in provided a great study in gossip, scandal, character assignation and the willingness of people to go along with it." It's a song about fighting for agency on an album that is in many ways about volition and potential; how people can navigate difficulties and opportunities to create different paths.

Sculptor can be consumed loud; because while Luluc's music is at times masterful in it's minimalism, it is anything but quiet in impact. There's a before you hear Luluc's music, and an after -- a turning point that affects people with rare force. Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney says "it's music that once you hear it, you can't live without it." The National's Matt Berninger said that for months, Passerby was "the only album I wanted to listen to." "What first hits is that voice," writes Peter Blackstock (No Depression),"a peaceful serenity that reaches deep into the heart." When NPR's Bob Boilen named 2014's Passerby his album of the year, he wrote: "I've listened to this record by Australia's Luluc more than any other this year. These songs feel like they've always been."

That gripping, imperative quality pulses through Sculptor, perhaps to an even greater extent than on Passerby or Dear Hamlyn (2008). Randell writes with more experimentation and possibility. From the contemplative scene of "Cambridge," to the churning disaster chronicled in the title track, the songs on Sculptor are there for the taking. "Broadly speaking, with these new songs I was interested in the difficulties that life can throw at us -- what we can do with them, how they can shape us, and what say we have," Randell explains. "That potential that is there for everyone, the different lives that are open to us. That's what I love in Ise's poem 'Spring Days and Blossom' -- which form the lyrics to "Spring" -- the brimming sense of spring and it's cycle, the enormity of what's possible and the beauty."

Sonically, the band have broadened their tonal palette following on from the successful collaboration on Passerby, co-produced with The National's Aaron Dessner. Multi-instrumentalist, singer and producer Steve Hassett mastered a wider spectrum of instruments to fully realize the album's expansive and daring vision. Randell and Hassett do nearly all of the writing, recording, and producing themselves, but their vision is far from insular. In addition to Mascis, Sculptor features contributions from several friends including Dessner (shreds on "Kids" and programmed drums on "Heist") and Jim White of Dirty Three (drums on "Genius") as well as musicians Matt Eccles (Weyes Blood, Connan Mockasin) on drums and Dave Nelson (The National, Beirut) on horns. Recording took place in Luluc's new Brooklyn studio, which they built themselves. The new studio is volition and potential in action and even incorporates reclaimed cedar from Dessner's iconic former Ditmas Park studio, where The National and Luluc had both lived and recorded.

That everyone has control of their own story is at the core of Sculptor. For Hassett, it's illuminated by the last line of the title track, which is the last line of the record itself: "'The most beautiful, serene sculpture my hands could make, could trace, could break.' All of the songs are playing with those ideas," he says. "Life is something you get, and you can get sidetracked for years and even destroy it, or you can remember that you've got some control over your life." But listeners of Sculptor may yield some of that control, even if for a short time, to the mastery of the music itself.

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