WHAT IS IT about people that makes us scramble like great big idiots to define music? Why do we invent gimpy genre quantifiers like "freak-folk" or "posi-core"? Whatever it is, we do it—I do it—and it's lazy and reductive. Tractor Operator, then, could be called folk or Americana or even grunge, but that only puts limits on the music, which is a lot more cohesive than any sputtering, clashing smash of adjectives might suggest.
The band, which is really just Portland guy Eric Jensen, put out an excellent self-titled CD last year on the Smells Delicious label, and that's what I want to talk about here. It's a good record because it has range—peaks and valleys. It knows when to rage like a motherfucker and when to chill the eff out. (This might be what confuses people so much.) The record starts with "A.M. Sale," a brawny little rock song that has a Neutral Milk Hotel-ish fuzzbomb vibe. Next up is "Incredible," a sweetheart of a 45-second acoustic track about hidden vulnerability and stifling masculinity. Less than a minute, over just like that, message relayed, perfect. "Take a Nap" is a backwoodsy, shuffling acoustic song with kickass murky drums. "New Black Bike" is a Daniel Johnston rocker with lyrics about "little kids wearing cowboy boots, smoking cigarettes, wearing parachutes." There's some nice wordplay going on here; sometimes the lyrics are a little buried in distortion or noise, but it's definitely worth a close listen to hear what the man's got to say.
The album ends with "27 People," a under-three-minute deal that's half pop Nirvana, half something else entirely, darker, less obtuse. After that, the clock rolls silent for about seven minutes before kicking into the hidden track, a late-in-the-game sigh, a final see ya later that lullabies us out with spacious acoustic strums, and Jensen singing, "You are good/Yes we'll remember your body behind your thunder" and, "A good deed does not go by the wayside." Is making a great record, one packed with messages and originality, a good deed? I think it is. Yeah, it is.