Settlers by Western Skies Motel (Review)

Leave it to a guy from Denmark to compose the perfect soundtrack for driving across the Nebraska prairie.
Settlers, Western Skies Motel

I’ve lived in Nebraska my entire life and have never had much of a desire to live anywhere else, much less anywhere outside America’s midwest. Maybe it’s because I come from a long line of farmers, and so — even though I’ve never really been a farmer myself — I still feel an attachment to this land. I still find beauty in it. I’m not envious of folks who live on the coasts, or near the mountains. The flat lands of “flyover country” are plenty epic and picturesque for me, and I want to sink my roots deep into them.

I find it fascinating that some of the music that best conjures up Nebraska vistas, and what it’s like to drive through them and see them up close, comes from a guy in Denmark of all places. René Gonzàlez Schelbeck — who records under the Western Skies Motel moniker — writes music that, as he puts it, is “inspired by the dry winds of the American prairie.” His music, which draws as much from “old timey” folk music as it does post-rock like Dirty Three and Steven R. Smith’s various projects, instantly brings to mind images of the Nebraska sandhills, of vast fields of prairie grass punctuated by rivers, of land as beautiful as it is (by turns) barren and verdant.

Built mostly from layers of quickly picked acoustic guitar with the occasional drone, woodwind, piano, and/or field recording filtering through the dusty notes, Western Skies Motel’s Settlers is a simple, stripped down affair. But conversely, that’s precisely what allows it be so cinematic and affecting, particularly on songs like “Two Worlds” (with its dust storm of a denouement), “Migratory Birds” (whose gentle swells of percussion, guitar, and organ drift by like summer clouds) and “Whirl” (with its graceful melodic and tonal shifts).

All of Settlers’ songs draw from the same sepia-toned palette and listening to them, I’m frequently reminded of the many trips my family has made across the midwest. We prefer to abandon the interstate for the more scenic highways and rural routes, and subsequently, we drive through rundown towns whose glory days were half a century ago; past long-abandoned farm buildings worn down by the elements; and across vast grasslands scarred by deep sandstone ravines and pocked with prairie grass and shrubs.

Settlers is solemn, contemplative music. It’s the sort of music that ideally, would soundtrack sitting on the porch of a prairie box house at dusk after a long day’s work in the fields, as the sun sets over hills and the cool, solitary night settles in. I’ll admit that’s a rather romantic notion of life on the prairie, and one enhanced by the stately, vintage photography that comprises the album’s artwork. But Schelbeck’s music is so evocative that it’s hard not to imagine such a setting, and even yearn for it. That’s doubly so if you’ve lived your whole life here in “flyover country” and are familiar with its sublime, unique beauty.

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