Monday, February 15, 2010

Midlake - The Courage of Others

Midlake's The Trials of Van Occupanther was the first album I reviewed on this blog, and it's still one of my all-time favorites. There's something so deliciously mild about it that few other bands can manage. As a sophomore album, it does everything it should: it makes up for a less-than-stellar debut, builds a musical brand, and sticks to what it does best. After four years of recording, Midlake's latest release, The Courage of Others, marks a perfect third point of maturity for the band; in it we hear a group of artists with a clear vision and focused expression creating a triumphant, one-piece album.

Much has changed since Occupanther. The central role of piano has been usurped by flute, giving the songs an older, dreamier feel. As a whole, Courage has an ancient, almost Tolkien sensibility; although Midlake have never been a feel-good, summer band, it's clear they've escalated their rural-rock motif to one of full-blown gothic blues. With Occupanther, Midlake was widely compared to Fleetwood Mac, but now King Crimson seems more apt. This shift to a more European sound isn't completely out-of-the-blue--Midlake first achieved exposure in England in the early 00s.

Lead singer Tim Smith's lyrics, still opaque as ever, take on a mystic quality completely suited to his voice. His singing style is one of the most obvious holdovers from previous albums, and remains relatively unchanged. In addition to the typical double-tracking, however, some new songs include a female vocalist, perfectly contrasting the overall dark tone of the album.

Courage's intended atmospherics are apparent with every listen. While keeping much of the same melodic mindset, the band's arrangements and style choices are far more cohesive. Each song feels justified, like it belongs there. There is little incentive to skip tracks, since they all blend so well together. In the case of most other bands, such a balanced sound would come across as bland or repetitive, but when executed this tastefully it counts as a compliment to the group's artistic expression. That level of unique expression is evident throughout the album--the glowering, scorched guitar solo in "Winter Dies," the shift between 7/8 and 6/8 time in "Core of Nature," the deliberate, ominous opening of "Rulers, Ruling All Things," and the countless perfect harmonies on almost every song.

Although I'm not sure The Courage of Others will ever replace Van Occupanther as far as my iTunes play count is concerned, it makes many reassuring technical strides that not all bands care to make. A sequel would have been too easy for Midlake--instead, they had in mind an evolution, broadcast through a separate style altogether. The pendulum is in full swing. Unfortunately, this sets a difficult precedent for any future albums they make: can they re-imagine themselves again in service of producing a great recording? If their developments so far are any indication, the answer is yes, although it might be another four years in coming.

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