Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Midlake: The Courage of Others

go to and spend the day there.

Midlake's The Trials of Van Occupanther was a pastoral album whose acoustic-minded songs of bandits, log cabins deep in the woods and travelers far from home recalled both the best - and occasionally the worst - of early '70s folk and soft rock. Though it wasn't a landmark album and sometimes flirted with being ridiculously twee, some of its songs - "Head Home," "Roscoe," "It Covers the Hillsides" - were among 2006's best and showed that the Denton, Texas band could borrow from the past without sounding derivative.

It's now been several years since the release of that sophomore album, and though the band hasn't entirely abandoned its roots on its most recent effort, The Courage of Others, the record's starting point is markedly different: in recent interviews frontman Tim Smith has commented how the album was heavily influenced by British folk music, particularly Fairport Convention. That group's style does indeed surface on Courage, most notably in the album's mostly acoustic instrumentation, understated vocal harmonies and copious amounts of dainty flute. For the most part it's a convincing, if subtle, homage that doesn't sound forced; it's not painfully lousy genre dabbling along the lines of the Decemberists indulging their prog-rock perversity at our expense and calling it The Hazards of Love. Its finest moments blend strands of British folk with the Americana of Van Occupanther without sounding like retreads; "Acts of Man" and "Fortune" are as strong as anything the band has recorded. Courage is also executed meticulously and it's clear much consideration went into its sound: the production, arrangements and vocals are precise and carefully separated.

Still, this stylistic shift isn't nearly as dramatic as one might think: most of the songs here, for better or worse, are most reminiscent of their Van Occupanther brethren, and too often sound like the work of a band running in place. These similarities make the album instantly familiar but also expose the album's most glaring weakness: it is, frankly, fucking boring and predictable. It is far too controlled for its own good, and its careful execution sounds excessively clinical. Worse, the album quickly becomes repetitive, as most songs lock into a predictable pattern and never really deviate from it. There is very little spontaneity or variety to be found throughout these 11 songs, as both the group's instrumentals and Smith's vocals sound overly uniform from one track to the next. The much-needed sparks of electricity that "Small Mountain" and "Rulers, Ruling All Things" inject are simply not enough; the result is an album that, although it sounds gorgeous and is executed flawlessly, feels both studied and monotonous.

This is to say nothing of Courage's subject matter, much of which mirrors that of Van Occupanther. Smith's nature-centric fixations and wanderlust are again on full display, with song titles like "Winter Dies," "Small Mountain," "Core of Nature" and "In the Ground" leaving very little doubt as to what the lyricist's preoccupations are. The songs' heavy focus on - groan - man's oneness with nature is exhausting and could give Bowerbirds a serious challenge for most eco-focused band in indie rock. The Courage of Others isn't without its merits, but ultimately it's a bland release that is expertly executed but lacking any sense of adventure or experimentation.

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