Midlake - The Courage of Others
Record Label: Bella Union
Release Date: February 2, 2010
Few albums in recent memory have come from seemingly out of nowhere to blow me away quite like Midlake's 2006 sophomore full-length The Trials of Van Occupanther. Nothing on their stripped-down debut Bamnan and Slivercork foreshadowed the beguiling blend of woodsy folk and flower-power rock that would overtake the band's sound, with astounding results. The organic arrangements and mostly minor-key approach could have produced music as drab as its earthy-toned cover art, but vibrant standouts like "Roscoe" and "Young Bride" carried a warmth that earned comparisons to Fleetwood Mac (but to my ears bore a more striking similarity to Matthews Southern Comfort's cover of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock") and painted a vivid collage in kaleidoscopic colors.
So clearly, The Courage of Others has a lot to live up to, but unfortunately, it's not entirely successful. While it is an endearing splash of folk-pop, it occasionally succumbs to the gray homogeneity that Van Occupanther so carefully avoided. Vocalist Tim Smith is still as soothingly smooth as ever and the gossamery layers of instruments are just as delightfully retro, but that mesmerizing chill factor doesn't pop up nearly as frequently.
The album's opener "Acts of Man" is hushed and intimate, and its gentle harmonies should be unmistakable to anyone familiar with the previous album. While there's generally less rock crunch on the album overall, the pastoral imagery of "Winter Dies" is flecked with psych-tinged guitar, and "Small Mountain" uses subtle, brooding electric guitar tones, but they seem to be used more for effect, much like the flutes in the song, than as a real driving force. It's an example of Midlake showing a little too much restraint. Much of this band's appeal lay in the delicate push-pull between bittersweet prettiness and polished muscularity, and the songs on The Courage of Others just don't pack that same punch.
Songs like "Core of Nature" and "Rulers, Ruling All Things" do contain traces of that balanced sound, but also bring to light another complaint about the album. Smith's delivery is as mellow as ever and goes down easier than a spoonful of honey, but the songs he's written here don't give him the opportunity to employ his range and deftness for delivering a hypnotizing melody. Therefore, the results are undoubtedly pleasant, but fall somewhere short of completely satisfying.
If there's a noteworthy cut on The Courage of Others, it's "Children of the Grounds". Like most of the record, it's slow to mid-tempo, but pushed forward by quick acoustic strums, and it builds up slowly to a huge rise with the type of sly hook that's all to rare on the set. "The Horn" also has the refined bombast to be a memorable track, but Smith's vocal performance sounds uncharacteristically disinterested, and the song comes off flat because of it.
The title track and "In the Ground" close out the album in a calming manner, and they stand out with earlier tune "Fortune" as the best examples of laid-back bucolic folk on the album. Much like the preceding material, they're sweet and agreeable but lack that completely capturing and entrancing quality I was hoping for. Perhaps I sound a little bitter because this didn't turn out to be another Van Occupanther. It's true that for any up-and-coming band, I'd consider an effort of this sort to be a success. For Midlake, however, it's hard to look at it as anything but a step backward. In the future, when I get that yen for some Midlake, it will still unquestionably be The Trials of Van Occupanther that I reach for.
I found this quite boring in places to be honest, and a lot of it extremely analogous.
I think the score is dead-on.
This band is talented, but they are better than this.
Yeah, that was pretty much my point. The best way for me to explain it may be this: I listen to a ton of albums while I'm at work, and this is one of those that you don't realize it right away when it's stopped playing. Van Occupanther on the other hand almost distracts me from getting work done. It doesn't allow itself to be background noise. This just doesn't command your attention that way.