Really smart scientists have proven that our taste in music mostly comes from our memories. Daniel J. Levitin says in his book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession that we lump things into categories (or genres) to help distinguish what something sounds like. We also have a distinct ability to pull together the melody of a song from our past, regardless if it’s in the right key. All these memories help determine what we grow to like over time.
So when artists create, they’re actually grasping at the sounds of their pasts. Eric Earley — the frontman for Portland, Oregon’s Blitzen Trapper — probably doesn’t think about how or why his brain’s synapses react to certain sounds. But one listen to his band’s music, and it’s obvious that years of musical influences drive his songs.
Bob Dylan, John Denver, and Creedence Clearwater Revival are some of Earley’s childhood favorites. He didn’t have many records growing up, so instead of huddling around a record player, he spent a lot of time playing music with his dad, learning to play the banjo when he was six.
When Earley first got together with the five other guys in Blitzen Trapper, they began harvesting their influences into a sound that’s all over the place. Their 2003 self-titled debut is a complete mish-mosh of ideas — it’s neither cohesive nor very listenable as they jump back and forth between genres within single songs.
In a way, Blitzen Trapper is still the kind of band that doesn’t stick to one type of song (you’ll probably never hear another group called Blitzen Trapper-esque). But as they progress, they uncover more consistency in their music. For the most part, 2008’s Furr sticks to a reflective brand of Americana.
But writing material for the band’s fifth and latest album, Destroyer of the Void, wasn’t quick or easy for Earley. He collected more than two dozen songs written over the past couple years and eventually whittled them down to the 12 that made it on the album. “I did a batch of songs in 2009 and then another batch in 2010,” he says. “I was sort of realizing what songs I wanted to use from that first batch, and the next songs were sort of making sure it all fit in the same world.”
With all of this talk about batches, it almost sounds like Earley is baking cookies. And in a way, he is. Using ingredients from his influences — a little Led Zeppelin here, some Neil Young there — Destroyer of the Void is a tasty concoction whipped up from beloved old recipes.
The title track is a multipart suite that sounds like three different songs fused into one — just like a musical version of The Human Centipede. The opening cascade of drum trills gives way to blissful ’60s harmonies, which eventually erupt as a burning rocker with spiky electric-guitar wailing and a gruff sonic landscape. “It was an experiment I wanted to try,” laughs Earley. “There’s a whole lot of songs going on that I was recording, and that one was a few pieces that I liked. I felt like putting them together in sort of a concept way, just for the fun of it. You don’t really hear that much anymore. It’s fun to play.”
Destroyer of the Void takes in folk, pop, psychedelia, rock, and country all at once, often leaving no boundaries in between. They all sound like something from freeform ‘70s FM radio. Producer Mike Coykendall, who also worked on Furr, makes Destroyer’s songs shimmer and glow with wistful warmth.
It’s no surprise then that nostalgia often creeps into the album’s lyrics. “All you got left is a silhouette, an empty bed, and a cheap Corvette/You’re a long way from your sweet 16/You need some stone-washed jeans and a time machine to take you back,” sings Earley in “Evening Star.” Then there are the songs about mass murderers, dragons, “dead dreamers in a burning car,” and heaven in a hurricane — all of which tie into Earley’s memories.
“I like to write about things that matter and that are real, but I like to write about them in terms of dreamlike images,” he says. “I don’t write literally most of the time, so I end up using a whole lot of imagery that I’ve grown up with — from the Bible when I was a kid, from mythology, and from [other] stuff I’ve read. I take a lot from Hemingway and Steinbeck — classic writers who have this vision of America.” —Danielle Sills
Blitzen Trapper, with Pomegranates. 9 p.m. at the Beachland Ballroom. Tickets: $16, $14 in advance.
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