Latest album from Austin roots rockers ditches the shimmering sonics of its predecessor for a darker, moodier sound.
Milton Mapes is a band, not a person. (Kinda like Pink Floyd is a band, not a person, or Trout Fishing in America is a person and a book.) The Austin, Texas group is named after singer/songwriter Greg Vanderpool's grandfather. I struggled to find an appropriate place to mention this important fact within the paragraphs below; having failed that, I resorted to stick it up here at the top. If you find a place in the article where this tidbit would have fit appropriately, please don't tell me. I already feel bad enough as it is.
Milton Mapes' 2003 album Westernaire was a pleasant, if markedly unadventurous, collection of rootsy rock songs. It harkened back to the 1990s' alt.country hoohah, calling to mind records like Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne and the Jayhawks' Hollywood Town Hall. While playing, it was easy to herald Westernaire based on its production alone. Its sound was nothing fancy, but it was just right, shiny and sparkling and thoroughly dynamic. Though not a perfect album by any stretch, it did benefit from a stand-out could-be single: "Maybe You're Here, Maybe You're Not" was impatient and passionate, a propulsive strummer that would have fit nicely on Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac. It was Milton Mapes' "I Must Be High" or "Drown", its "Excuse Me If I Break My Own Heart".
The Blacklight Trap is different. It's not nearly as inviting or stimulating as its predecessor: the sprightly landscape-passing-by-the-car-window vibe has been usurped by the sound of claustrophobic cave-rock; the bright, boundless sonics have been filtered out in favor of a rawer, ragged sound. I would say that Milton Mapes has fully embraced its Crazy Horse potential, but for the majority of the record, the band sounds either half-asleep or yawningly disinterested.
Greg Vanderpool's songs may be partly to blame for The Blacklight Trap's dirge of stilted, overgrown activity. He's dabbling more in a faceless, amplified country-pie-folk-rock Dylanology, and is perhaps in over his head. The nine songs on The Blacklight Trap marry simple Nebraska melodies with the electro-hum of Rust Never Sleeps bombast, and only occasionally do the results really prove effective. The lead-off track "In the Corner Where It All Began" is a good, if unfulfilled, omen for the album's potential: over a Fridmann-worthy drum track, the band jackknifes the chord changes stringently as Vanderpool attempts to "make sense out of nothing". This initial promise isn't revisited again until the album's penultimate track, "When the Earth's Last Picture Is Painted", which combines some Rudyard Kipling lines into its steady undertow of Youngian guitar heroics.
The bulk of The Blacklight Trap coasts on an overwrought simplicity, dreamed up in reverb akin to My Morning Jacket. Its open-ended, near-Appalachian melodies and dulled feedback squalls teeter on the edge of elevation, but more often than not remain resistant and stagnant. "The Blacklight Trap" and "Underneath the River Runs" wallow in slow gaits, populated by a few expected notes that conform to their linear chord progressions. Throughout the record's midsection of meditative guitar trances and bludgeoned bluesy vamps, any trace of tension or drama (or even, if Milton Mapes was to wholly embrace the Nebraska aesthetic, moral ambiguity) is palpably absent. Vanderpool may lyrically allude to Johnny Cash, the Byrds, and Hendrix in "Tornado Weather", but his band does not.
Milton Mapes never pretended that it was the best roots-rock band in the country, but Westernaire was commonly irresistible -- in fact, it still is. Now, pursuing its own Tonight's the Night darkness with results more icy than incisive, the band has shuffled down a path few may care to follow.