Milton Mapes/Milton Mapes-Nate Fowler/Deadman

The State Line (My Aunt Jane's Recordings)/Sway (Neighborhood Recordings)/Cuatro Canciones (Self-released)

Milton Mapes' front man Greg Vanderpool and head Deadman Steven Collins shared band and stage for nearly seven years; they did their time as Plebeians, recording two discs for Carpe Diem, till parting ways three years back...or, around the time they swapped out their U2 collection for a few copies of Sticky Fingers, Comes a Time (yes, for sounding like Neil Young) and Anodyne. Vanderpool and Collins are still pals but no longer collaborators, so how to explain the fact that, completely independent of each other, both have ditched middle-of-the-road art-rock for roadkill roots-rock (or, artless-rock)? Maybe it's true after all: Sooner or later, every band in this town goes country (unless you're the Old 97's). Either way, it's time to revise the old Dr. Hook song; nowadays, everyone can't wait to get their picture on the cover of No Depression.

But how do you accuse someone of hopping a trend when the trend takes you only as far as the towns of Broke and Bankrupt; if this music made any money, then Bloodshot Records would be more powerful than every label beneath the Vivendi banner, and Brent Best's poster would hang in every mobile home from here to Farmersville. Vanderpool, now an Austin boy by way of Lake Highlands by way of Nashville, especially knows how to conjure atmosphere and vibe: "Lubbock," the third track off the band's forthcoming The State Line (mastered by under-Nashville icon Buddy Miller), is shot through with dust, desolation and darkness--it's less a song than a whisper that burgeons into a roiling echo. Like all good country, the songs obsess over dead relationships and reduce them to familiar metaphor ("Let us reconstruct the night we broke down/When the lights went out/And the engines cooled"), and if they're not singalongs, they're certainly cryalongs, especially when Meredith Miller lends her burnished vocals, and Reed Easterwood plucks the mandolin from the wall and makes it bleed during that long, lonesome trip down to "The Elusive Goldmine." At seven songs, including one four-track demo that sounds like it was sung through a jock strap, The State Line's about three songs too short; leave 'em wanting more, I guess.

The split-single (more like a five-song EP) done with ex-66 guitarist Nate Fowler (Replacements fan, Marx Brothers fetishist--sounds like the perfect human being) offers the blueprint: a mid-disc cover of the Rolling Stones' "Sway," which smoothes off the original's rough, rusted edges but cuts deep just the same. Where Mick sang at you, maybe even to you, Vanderpool and Fowler sing it foryou; they bring with them a compassion--tenderness, some might call it--lacking in a 30-year-old song that never grows tiresome. "It's just that demon life's got you in its sway," Vanderpool offers, like a lifeline. Fowler's two tracks, a warm-up for the full-length he's working on, hint at his inner Tommy Stinson, which isn't enough of a good thing; as a singer, Fowler's going to be an excellent songwriter. "We belong," he insists at EP's end. He'll make his case soon enough.

Even shorter is Deadman's debut, a real case of truth in advertising: four songs, each pretty damned good if you can get past the fact Collins now (OK, still) sounds like Bono singing low-fi, low-key, plain ol' low, at least till he feels the need to get all arena in the bedroom. This time, he's got a female voice to even the odds: organist-vocalist Sherilyn Collins, the Emmylou to his Gram (which is being verykind, but the disc engenders good will to spare). It's tempting to dismiss Deadman as melodramatic whispers: The music moans and groans till it suddenly screams, and often for no good reason (calm down, "Rosa Maria"). The fact everything takes place just below the surface makes it that much more beguiling; pay enough attention, and the music will seep into the bloodstream like some intoxicating elixir made of mandolins (again, thanks to Reed Easterwood, the once-and-future MVP of local roots-rock) and organs and harmonicas that go wheezein the night. The music's about as "spaghetti western" (their words) as Gunsmoke, and the song title in Spanish is about as original as the letter "r" ("Adios Mi Corazon"), but I'm willing to forgive anyone who trades in his pop-radio aspirations for lilting, mesmeric hymns such as these, even if Jesus never felt mypain.

 
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