There is a shadowy cloak to the music of Milton Mapes. It’s the kind of dark, seductive veil that invites guesses about the people behind it, especially after you listen to The Blacklight Trap, the group’s cryptic and captivating third release, which happens to be named for a device that attracts and captures insects.
But be forewarned: Trying to read into this band’s music can be as alluring and as precarious for the curious as, say, approaching that bug-zapper.
For instance, the band is named for singer Greg Vanderpool’s grandfather, who is exactly 51 years his senior. So you figure Milton Mapes was an inspirational musician, someone who introduced Greg and his family to the joy and splendor of music.
Good guess. Wrong, though. Zap.
“No, my grandfather’s not a musician. He’s not musical at all,” says Vanderpool, the band’s songwriter and chief architect, chuckling at the mere thought. “During the period for a band where every word said is a potential band name, his name came up. We were all kind of laughing about it. Then it stuck. Nothing else ever topped it. He likes it. And I still get a kick out of seeing his name all over the place. Not too long ago, we were opening a show for Willie Nelson, and there were posters all over with Willie Nelson and my grandfather’s name side by side. That was just great.”
Describing the band musically can be like a game of pin-the-antecedent-on-the-artist. Most often, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Pedro The Lion, Uncle Tupelo and Sun Kil Moon come up. But there have also been comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, Counting Crows, Richard Buckner and Damien Jurado. “I’m pretty much fans of a lot of these people we’ve been compared to,” says Vanderpool. “And sometimes, if a name comes up enough and I don’t know them, I can check out their stuff. This happened with Mark Kozelek [Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon]. I checked it out and really liked it. I don’t hear us sounding too much alike, but maybe we have the same set of influences or something.”
Ah, influences. That means even though grandpappy Milton Mapes, the World War II Marines veteran, wasn’t musical, the Vanderpool home was still brimming with good tunes, exposing Greg to an eclectic but sturdy foundation of sounds to build on.
“I didn’t grow up in a real musical household,” Vanderpool says. “Christmas music was big in my house. That was the time of year when we listened to a lot of music. Church music was big, too. So it was traditional hymns and Christmas songs.
“My dad used to listen to the Kingston Trio and the Everly Brothers and stuff like that, some country & western tunes. He also used to sing that song ‘Tom Dooley’ to me all the time. It’s kind of funny. Here I was, 3 years old, and my dad was singing to me about some guy getting hanged. I guess the darkness was already seeping in.”
OK, now we’re getting places. There is plenty of darkness on The Blacklight Trap. There’s the deadly tale of substance abuse on the title track, told in both the second and third person from a brother’s point of view. There’s the wounded lover refusing to let anyone get too close in “Waiting For Love To Fail”. There’s the bloody carnage of war on “Underneath The River Runs”. And there is the apocalyptic allusion to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “L’Envoi”, which Vanderpool expands and sets to music under the title “When The Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted”.
This is a bleak but powerful landscape painted by Vanderpool and band, which includes Roberto Sánchez on drums, Britton Beisenherz on bass and piano, Cliff Brown Jr. on organ, keys, guitars and background vocals, and Jim Fredley on guitars, mandolin and background vocals. Vanderpool’s vulnerable vocals are set amidst layers of acoustic guitar, raunchy electric guitar, swirling keys and thunderous drums.
Dark, dark stuff, it would seem. Well, not really, says Vanderpool. Zap.
“I don’t consider myself a morose person or anything,” he counters. “This album is a little darker than our others. But it’s not dark without a light at the end of the tunnel. The Blacklight Trap is a metaphor for society or for anything that is feeding us a lie. As a species, we’re inherently flawed. But we’re also capable of doing good. Right now, I’d say we’re set to self-destruct without some intervention from somewhere. But you can look at the glass as half empty or half full. Sure, much of the album paints a dark picture. But the other message on here, the more spiritual message, is that not all hope is lost.”