[OUTLAW FOLK-ROCK] There are risks to opening your album with a six-minute epic. Especially when the song in question is a sonic departure wherein your band's signature Southern rock harmonies clash violently against unmistakable Queen and Bowie-mused rock operatics.
The first risk is that longtime fans won't get it. But by now, anyone who has followed Blitzen Trapper for a couple albums is used to surprises. And after its sprawling opening number, Destroyer of the Void is less of a cannonball than an elegant swan dive. The band has embraced its softer side, playing everything from early Dylan-style ramble-ballads ("The Tree," with Alela Diane as Joan Baez) to Fleetwood Mac-style twisting, descriptive narratives ("Below the Hurricane"). All of these sound fresh under the direction of frontman Eric Earley, who has further refined his pipes to their most impressive condition yet, tackling complex tunes with an easy, velveteen smoothness.
The second risk, though, is that the rest of the album won't live up to that six-minute kickstart. But Blitzen Trapper has taken precautions here, as well, pacing mournful piano numbers like standout "Heaven and Earth" with bass-driven road-trip tunes like "Dragon's Song." Shades of the opener's epicness are brought back around from time to time, too ("Love and Hate" is more "Fat Bottom Girls" than "Bohemian Rhapsody," but it certainly belongs in the '70s more than the aughts).
While producer Mike Coykendall brings a late-night whiskey warmth to the sessions—further nudging the band in its transition from schizophrenic rockers to outlaw folk-rockers—the real trick for Blitzen Trapper has been growing ever more melodic while retaining its weirdness. It works: Even when aping its influences, Blitzen Trapper sounds more like itself than ever before. CASEY JARMAN.
[ANIMAL STYLE] You can't knock Nick Caceres for riding a gimmick. Ever since the young songwriter adopted the made-up moniker Gratitillium—which stands for, in his words, "gratitude for animals"—for his bedroom recording project, he's been fixated on the animal kingdom. Last year, he dropped Gratitillium Volume 1, a high-concept, low-fidelity record that featured 13 songs about different members of the wild. It was a pretty heady and ambitious debut, recorded straight to a computer pretty much all by his lonesome. Now that he's recruited a full backing band, Caceres retreats to the studio with Wild Alive 1.5, a stopgap EP of full band versions of old material.
Unfortunately, much of the homespun charm that made Volume 1 so appealing is lost in the fleshed-out arrangements. "Monkey Play"—previously a showcase for Caceres' hollering and blown-out acoustic guitar—now feels a little too clean, with all the ugly edges hidden under layers of crisp production and clear vocals. These songs all sound fantastic, from the Britpop rave-up "Big Bear Mountain" to the walking bassline strut of "Barn Owl Hearts." What's lacking is the heart and silliness that made the originals so much fun.
Accordingly, it's the EP's one down moment—the rumbling "In Black Crow's Name"—that points to where Gratitillium should be heading. Here Caceres takes full advantage of the extra help, as the tune moves from a gorgeous acoustic intro to a rousing, horn-laden finale with Caceres howling the song title like a possessed Jack White. It's a beautiful moment, and one that offers a lesson: Sometimes your spirit animal belongs in the bedroom, not the jungle. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
SEE IT: Gratillium releases Wild Alive 1.5 on Wednesday, June 2, at Holocene. 8:30 pm. $5. 21+. Blitzen Trapper's Destroyer of the Void is out Tuesday, June 8. The band plays at the Crystal Ballroom on Friday, July 23.