Midlake brings moody 70s sound to Plush
Denton, Tx quintet explores darker side of folk & album rock on 'The Courage of Others'
Midlake's new record, "The Courage of Others" (Bella Union) is a dark, brooding stew of influences. It is unapologetically so; unlike so many indoe artists who have revisited the 70s sounds of the Laurel Canyon era or the works of British folk-rockers Fairport Convention and Pentangle, this record refuses to ironize, or even to modernize, such somber music.
As one might expect, the grave face the band shows on the new record is receiving mixed reviews. Some critics find the lyrics too earnest, the spot-on recreation of that era too flat without some of the keyboard trickery and straight-ahead, Lindsey Buckingham-esque leads of their 2006 effort, "The Trials of Van Occupanther."
But the consensus is that the album is one to be reckoned with, regardless. Mojo magazine made "The Courage of Others" their album of the month for February, NPR is streaming the entire thing on its website, and even the most cynical indie music blogs acknowledge the high level of musicianship and the compellingly moody subject matter of the record.
The cover photo is a tribute to Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's 1966 film "Andrei Rublev," which chronicles the imagined life of the 15th century painter. Like many album covers of that early 70s album-rock and folk-rock music, the image is almost comically sincere. But like the songs themselves, the cover is post-ironic, coming through the filter of contemporary culture and choosing to return to an earthier, solemn place.
Singer/songwriter Tim Smith has always been interested in the themes of the record: nature and the pastoral, and the role of humans within nature. There are moments of naked rhetoric that feel almost embarrassingly honest or preachy, as in "Core of Nature:"
- I will take my rest with all creatures
- who dwell under the smallest of green
- I'll remain no more than is required of me
- until the spirit is gone
- I will long to see all that waits to be known
- and all that will never be known
When such lyrics are sung in three- or four-part shimmering harmony, however, their obviousness is muted. The emulsion of the tenor harmonies and the flutes that dominate several tracks is stunning, and along with the rock guitar work layering over fingerpicked acoustic guitar, a unique of revision of what could be a mere period piece.
While there is not the one track that stands out as a perfect song, as "Roscoe" did on "Van Occupanther," the opening sequence of "Acts of Man," "Winter Dies" and "Small Mountain" has a powerful effect as a unit that may prove more deeply etched on the listener's imagination.
The quintet plays at Plush Monday with fellow Denton denizens Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, whose rougher-hewn arrangements are a freakier, more gypsified folk, reminiscient alternately of Beirut or Devotchka and Akron/Family or Bonnie Prince Billy.
The level of musicianship will stay high throughout the evening; Denton is the home of the University of North Texas, which houses one of the best music programs in the country, so these players are seasoned. The fact that both bands are also blessed with powerful songwriting makes this a potentially stellar live show.