As the year comes to a close, it's normal for writiers to start looking back at the 'year in music.' It's not as easy as you'd like to think, though. After all, what do you leave out? What made a strong impression? Did something that made a heavy impression at the first of the year really hold up until the end of the year? Did that really great record actually come out last year? What date do you stop looking at new releases? Do records released in December of the previous year--do they count? And the most difficult question of all--what makes one record better than another? Of course, when a record turns up towards the end of the year, is it really fair to compare it to one that was released in the previous winter? As you can see, these are all daunting questions which must be asked.
You can see where this is going, can't you?
Milton Mapes is a band clearly poised to break out of the Austin city limits, and their first full-length album, Westernaire is clearly the vehicle they need to make their escape. My first listen left me sitting in total awe; my ears have always wanted to hear a record like Westernaire, yet no band was able to take me to such heights, and very few bands soar to such heights, especially on a debut album. (Their previous record, The State Line, was released about two years ago and is essentially a mini album, and has recently been reissued and remastered with bonus tracks.) I was immediatly struck by Milton Mapes mastermind Greg Vanderpool's voice: it's haunted by the ghosts of the desert and wounded by the arrows of love, he sings with the wisdom of the ages.
Like all innovative bands, they escape from that trap we call categorization. Instead of getting weighed down by the different stereotypical 'alt.country' trademarks, Greg Vanderpool and company have deftly submerged their songs in several different styles and influences, and what has emerged is an album of songs that sound familiar, yet are completely new and fresh. You'll scratch your head and you'll think "that's gotta be a cover" and when you check the credits, you will be pleasantly surprised upon finding the phrase "all songs by Greg Vanderpool." Of course, Milton Mapes isn't a band to defy easy categorization; my first introduction to Milton Mapes was on a sampler of emo bands, where they were easily the best band of the lot. Even from that point, I knew that Milton Mapes was a band that was special; the song "Big Cloud, Big Sky" was 'emo' all right; sounding like Springsteen fronting Radiohead, I knew that this album was gonna be special, and I was right.
You would think that such a mixture of styles and sounds would provide for a bit of a disjointed listen. Yeah, well you would think that, but you'd be wrong, and Milton Mapes never sounds like more than one band. From the country-rock of "Maybe You Will, Maybe You Won't" and "This Kind of Danger" to the singer-songwriter fare of "A Thousand Songs About California" and "The Only Sound That Matters," Milton Mapes is all over the map, never giving you pause to classify them in one genre, switching things up enough to where the comfort levels change, and you don't know what to expect. The only thing that is constant, though, is the overwhelming atmosphere and feeling of isolation that runs throughout Westernaire. If ever a band has captured the despair and emptiness of West Texas, it's Milton Mapes.
Whether you like the loneliness of life ("The Sad Lines") or the sound of a Saturday night gone right ("Some To Reap"), Westernaire travels down the lonely highway of this thing we call life, and it looks an awful lot like Highway 84 from Sweetwater to Lubbock: ninety-five miles of nothingness, with nothing but flatlands and big sky around you. Milton Mapes' take on such isolation, though, will ring true to you, no matter what style of music you might like; Westernaire fits comfortably enough between OK Computer, Wreck Your Life, Unknown Pleasures and The River that you wouldn't really notice the difference, because Vanderpool has tasted the magic, the blood and the tears that make those records classic. Westernaire is a temporary classic; it will suffice nicely until their next album, which will most assuredly overshadow this near-perfect album.
Seek it out at your first opportunity; ignore it at your own peril.
One of this year's "Albums of the Year?" You've got six weeks to prove otherwise.