Roots rock is, by its nature, a limiting genre. There are only so many ways you can mix and remix the same ingredients—harmonica, pedal steel, acoustic guitar, a barn-raising rhythm section, lyrics about whiskey and broken dreams—into something satisfying. To avoid recycling the same ideas, artists must willfully toss out the cookbook.
Blitzen Trapper attempted just that last year when they collaborated with local theater company Portland Center Stage to create Wild and Reckless, a musical that combined frontman Eric Earley’s semi-autobiographical tales of old Portland and a troubled relationship with an ill-fitting post-apocalyptic narrative. It was a valiant effort, but one that still had the marks of a rough draft.
The Portland band’s new album is both an expansion of the themes of that play and a slide back into familiar territory. What made the live version of Wild and Reckless stand out was how the group ornamented their familiar sound with synthesizer flourishes and some remarkable vocal interplay between Earley and co-star Laura Carbonell. Only the keyboards remain, helping set the mood for the soulful “Wind Don’t Always Blow” and coloring the pleasant ramble of “No Man’s Land.”
The rest of the album could use that bit of brass that Carbonell brought to the stage show, or another left-field inclusion to force Blitzen Trapper out of its chosen groove. There are beguiling songs scattered throughout the record, like the stomping “Dance with Me” and the lightly funky “When I’m Dying.” Most everything else sees the band nestled snugly in their comfort zone.
But some moments of Wild and Reckless are tantalizing enough to leave promise for the future of Blitzen Trapper. This is a band in clear need of a fresh challenge or an unconventional producer who could push them to go further, dream bigger, and more fully embrace the title of their album.