The Long Road Back: Warmer Milks’ Soft Walks Reissued

2008 just wasn’t ready for Soft Walks. In the din, the hiss, and the thrum of the lo-fi swelter that was the sunset of the oughts, a gem was buried beneath the fallout and it’s just now finding its time in the sun. Warmer Milks, the Midwest collective that spawned this overlooked treasure, underwent a shift in sound that would see them mature their songwriting, deepen their scars, and put forth some of the most weatherbeaten folk, sound bath-rippled psych, and twang-soaked country rock of the decade. Yet, few were bound to hear it. Now, a lot of this can be put onto circumstance — label conundrums, distribution issues, misunderstandings, and technical tussles — as often hamstrings a release like this, but whatever conspired against the album is less important that what went right with this gem.

The band that hung the Milks name on ‘em is the brainchild of Mikey Turner — sometimes M.A. Turner, Ma Turner, Mazozma — but no matter what the moniker, the soul remains the same. Back in the days of CD-r swelter, Warmer Milks had made a name with Radish of Light on the noise buffet that was the Troubleman Unlimited imprint. The record was an anguished howl out of the bowels of Kentucky, pulled forth by the band and mixed by soon to be legendary state-mate Robert Beatty. The band traversed the ragged landscape through small press offerings on Fuck It Tapes, Release The Bats, Warm Freedom of Tongue, Mountaain, and Animal Disguise among other outlets that haunted this site at the time. It was the latter would wind up with Soft Walks in their hands. Given the track record up to that point, most were puzzled by Soft Walks. The band had created an aura of cratered devastation and let it loose among a host of tape hockers and quick-burned CD heads hungry for more. It seems an outlier among their stable of singe that included Growing, Sic Alps, Total Life, and Cadaver in Drag, and perhaps that was part of how this one seemed to fall on deaf ears at the time.

With a shift seemingly so sudden in their sound I’d asked the band to help take us all on a journey through the mind sway that coaxed this out from them along the way. Seems it all started as, many things might have at the time, in Austin, at SXSW. The band had played the fest and stayed at Shawn’s. Old friends MV & EE shared a bill with them in Austin, followed by an insane show at Shawn’s house with Blues Control and Thurston Moore/Matt Heyner Duo. Seeds were sown, but from the sounds of the lineups here, it still feels like a long way to Soft Walks. The band convenes in Kentucky, swelling to nine players and annexing a few of Turner’s local friends along the way. The bones of the album are built here in earnest. Shawn and Mikey spend the nights on the porch, working out arrangements for the pieces that Mikey has been writing. Between days scrounging weed and skating in town, a new sound begins to take shape. It’s hard to ignore the pull of the songs and both Shawn and Mikey can feel that something special is brewing for this one.

The band decamps an hour North to Shelbyville, to Paul Oldham’s farm. Oldham himself has been folded into the players for the album, and Rove Studio seems like the perfect setting for Soft Walks to be laid down. The scene is serene. A beatific farm studio, communal dinners, and two days to track with another to mix. The farm is a buzz of activity with folks from the Louisville contingent coming and going. Mikey was absorbing Flaming Lips videos, which may have accounted for the fuller sound. Shawn kept the atmosphere rich with the soul-seeked sounds of Creel Pone, jazz CD-rs, Mike Cooper, George Jones, and Dead tapes. Though other sounds had begun to creep in as well — Souled American was a heavy influence, Boards of Canada, and Neil Young and CCR, with stops along the way for Whitehouse and RHCP. 

Not everyone who was brought in was happy with the new direction, but those who could feel the filament of the album were excited with the new direction. Between weed, Xanax, and the beauty of Rove’s environs, those who had stayed on and had seen it through felt as if the album bonded them for life, an endeavor that elevated where Warmer Milks stood. Unfortunately from there the ride for Soft Walks got less serene. The band did a slog of a tour afterward, plagued by bad sound and sour attitudes as a result. The sound issue would follow the album itself, with the original edition having been poorly mixed, diminishing its auburn glow. Then it was sent to the wrong label and dismissed as unsuitable for release before being saved by Animal Disguise, though it wasn’t an easy item to find and reviews were scant due to the label’s constraints. “We wanted to make a beautiful weird folk rock album so that’s what we did I think,” notes Shawn. He’s right, if nothing else, the album succeeds on its own merits.

Plus, great records never really die, and while 2008 was not ready, 2021 certainly is. The warm confines of the record and country tilt fit the current release climate snuggly. As Turner and the Milks find last call comfort in the hazy “Patio’s Blues,” or the dirt-kicked vibe of “Steady Sheets,” it feels more apt than ever. Outlaw outtakes and bluegrass burbles find their way alongside exploratory takes that are more raga than ravaged, and the record takes on something of a communal conduit for the ayahuasca cowboys peering over the edge. With a new mastering by Oldham, this is the definitive version of what Warmer Milks set out to achieve, and with a world that might finally be ready to receive it, Soft Walks is ready for its place in the sun.

Check out this playlist of influences from the band’s days recording the album and pickup the new remastered edition along with new Robert Beatty cover art.

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