Though its carrying capacity has seen a bump in the last decade or so, popular music can only support so many banjo bands. Duluth, Minnesota’s Trampled By Turtles began making a case for one more in earnest in 2010 with their crossover album, “Palomino,” a worthy introduction to the band’s two lone modes: speed picking and plaintive alt-folk.
Their latest release, “Wild Animals,” is the band’s slowest LP to date, only reverting to true-shred once in the album’s eleven tracks. They play at such a blistering clip in that song, “Come Back Home,” that it sounds like someone hit fast-forward on a cassette tape.
That sheer speed is why so many Trampled By Turtles fans come to their shows by the hundreds. But “Wild Animals” will break your heart long before your knees. “I’m constantly shaking with the echoes of love,” frontman Dave Simonett sings on “Ghosts,” solemnly reflecting on what’s left when love leaves. The sense of loss pervades almost every song on “Wild Animals.” “Nobody Knows” is straight bluegrass gospel, a intriguing configuration for the band, whose unconventional borrowing from modern genres has become as predictable as it was once fresh. It’s a welcome variation to what is at times a slog of down-tempo balladry. The violin-led “Silver Light,” for example, is lovely, but there isn’t much to distinguish it from all the other instances of somber violin songs here (least of all its tired fixation on moonlight).
But going traditional is a step in the wrong direction here. Thankfully, some of these tracks suggest that their distinctly modern listening habits have finally bled from their covers into their original music. Tracks like “Winner” and “Repetition,” which features as head-scratching a narrative as any Modest Mouse song, defiantly resist interpretation, and shade bits of the album in a post-modern haze. It’s an exciting direction for the band who, if you squint at the right points in the LP, sound like they could evolve into some americana-roots Pixies if they were to stay on track.
Still, most of “Wild Animals” doesn’t let on this promise. Instead, it’s at best a transitional LP for the boys from Duluth. Caught between the old folk world of their instruments (as well as half their fans) and the disparate left-of-center style of their alternative heroes, Trampled By Turtles have positioned themselves for another breakout with “Wild Animals.” But it isn’t here yet.
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s all-purpose news blogger and album reviewer. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.