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Midlake
The Courage of Others - Bella Union
FILTER Grade: 82%

By Stephen Humphries on May 14, 2010

 

Midlake

Midlake’s emergence as indie-scene headliners seemingly defies the laws of musical physics. For starters, it’s quite possibly the only post-1980 band to cite Jethro Tull as an influence. Its most popular song is, improbably, an ode to a woman who reads Hobbes’ Leviathan. And Midlake’s breakout album, featuring artwork that falls somewhere between The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Genesis’s Foxtrot, has a title that would have baffled even Frank Zappa: 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther.

    Then again, Midlake’s success shouldn’t seem like an anomaly. The five Texans from Denton, a college town within lasso distance of Dallas, owe their rise to old-fashioned virtues such as indelible melody and individual identity. Those nascent qualities were evident on Midlake’s 2004 debut, the perplexingly titled Bamnan and Slivercork. Clearly a bedroom production, the album’s rinky-dink instrumentation only enhanced its vibe of child-like wonder. Yet it hardly hinted at what was to come. The Trials of Van Occupanther, an instant classic, was redolent of Steely Dan and Grandaddy and its wistful nostalgia for a rustic, 19th-century lifestyle held powerful romantic sway.

    Midlake’s publicist may well be relieved that the band’s long-awaited third album has a more-or-less straightforward title: The Courage of Others. The cover art, however, is typically offbeat. It features the band wearing cowl robes, looking as if they’re members of Sunn O))). Or, worse, The Polyphonic Spree. Perhaps they’re meant to resemble druids, which given the environmental bent of the album, is entirely appropriate.

    The Courage of Others wastes no time in laying out its central theme on “Acts of Man,” a hushed opener of finely woven acoustic filigrees, genteel drums, and plaintive flute. As the music builds to its low-rise apex, singer Tim Smith laments, “When the acts of men/cause the ground to break open/oh, let me inside/let me inside not to wake.” The whole record is laden with similarly gloomy sentiments. Indeed, the next track, “Winter Dies,” seems to indict mankind for wreaking environmental havoc in one locale before moving on to despoil fresh pastures. Even Al Gore might blanch at the song’s pessimistic refrain—”one more year for man to change his ways”—but the music is so rousing that listeners may well experience rapture. The irresistible chorus is followed by a thrilling guitar solo that sounds like the charge of a startled elephant. For good measure, there’s also a whirling dervish solo during the outro. Those amplified bursts are a rare concession to electricity on a largely acoustic record—talk about a minimal carbon footprint. In order to pare down the band’s sound, band member Eric Nichelson even ditched the piano and keyboards that were such a signature component of Van Occupanther.

    The new album’s biggest musical influence? Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span. (Wholly unfashionable in their native England, these leaders of the late 1960s electric-folk scene are surely ripe for critical reevaluation now that Midlake and Fleet Foxes cite them as influences.) Consequently, songs such as “In the Ground” and “Rulers Ruling All Things” sound like 21st-century updates of medieval melodies. Elsewhere, the combination of flute and finger-style guitar is oddly reminiscent of the theme tune to M.A.S.H., but without the sound of helicopters.

    Yet, the plangent songs, though pretty, are characterized by torpid tempos and a funereal feel. As a result, the album soon becomes drowsy. What happened to the diversity of melody and pace that distinguished The Trials of Van Occupanther? Also problematic: Smith’s languid vocal delivery has precious little variance from song to song as he elongates as many vowels as possible. One pines for the sprightly breeziness he brought to Van Occupanther standouts such as “Roscoe,” “Head Home” and “Young Bride.”

    Thankfully, The Courage of Others rallies briefly around the three-quarter mark. “Children of the Grounds” starts off as fairly unremarkable. Midway through, however, it takes on a sudden urgency with a pleasing ascending melody for the chorus. Electric guitars make a welcome return to the fore on “The Horn,” a song further enlivened by ethereal flute and a sunburst guitar break. Best of all, “Bring Down” is a gorgeous duet between Smith and Bella Union label mate Stephanie Dosen. It sounds like a timeless madrigal.

    The trio of songs showcases Midlake’s capacity for melding graceful lyrics and finely crafted tunes.  Though the album resumes its weary droop, resist the urge to identify The Courage of Others by this stanza in “Bring Down”: “The joy has burned out/and it’s gone/but I don’t know where.”

    Though the mood has been lowered since 2006, it’s clear that Midlake can still reach beautiful heights. STEPHEN HUMPHRIES

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