Midlake have split the camp. This has been evident since the release of The Courage Of Others with conflicting reviews across the board. Eagerly anticipated, the third album from the Texan outfit had a lot to live up to. It’s predecessor The Trials of Van Occupanther found the band with a well deserved allegiance of fans. Melodic and lyrically rich with one foot in ’70s folk rock, Van Occupanther struck a chord with many. Sticking with the ’70s and further pursuing the folk route, Midlake have crafted an album that can be described by two overly used words, whimsical and pastoral. An album that needs time and investment to uncover its beauty and rewards – either that or it’s just plain dull. Hoping it to be the former, a live performance can enlighten the listener; causing a difficult album to click.
Touring as a seven-piece Midlake appear looking like a stage-performance of Almost Famous, younger and less beardy than their music would have you believe. They open with -Rulers, Ruling all Things’** and it is immediately obvious that we are in the presence of technically gifted musicians. Introduced by a combination of flute and soft vocals – guitar, bass and drums sneak in with impressive subtlety and the music created is soothing and serene. With the addition of some major chords the set continues with -The Horn’ followed by -Small Mountain’. It is at this point, three songs in (much like the album), that an element of sameness kicks in. With two flautists and four guitars along with three or four part harmonies over meandering basslines and shimmering percussion, Midlake are a remarkable bunch of musician; but sometimes remarkable musicians play unremarkable songs.
As if sensing the drift the band pull -Bandits’ and the brilliant -Young Bride’ out of the back catalogue, injecting some much needed energy, melody and hooks. Winning the crowd over, they try again with the latest album, this time with the title track and -Fortune’, both lovely but as the two flautists are joined by a wooden recorder it all gets a bit fanciful and much of the audience take this as a opportunity to nip to jacks, grab a pint or maybe take up smoking; watching out for centaurs, satyrs and fairy-folk along the way.
There’s a pattern to the set; test the ground with a couple of numbers from The Courage of Others followed by some bankers from Van Occupather. There is no question of their musicianship, the extended build up to ‘Roscoe’ was jaw-dropping before bounding into folk-rock brilliance. In saying that there is no question of their ability to write engaging hook-laden folk music neither; this is more than proven in the en core as -Branches’ is sang back at them word for word. Beautiful though it is, there’s just something about The Courage of Others that isn’t connecting; even the band seem unsure with slightly dead-pan delivery. It just seems like Midlake’s new material doesn’t come close to the potential they showed four years ago.
** Disclaimer: due to overbearing sameness song titles may be totally incorrect.
Photos by Julie Bienvenu.