Music Reviews Midlake

Texas quintet Midlake’s full-length debut, 2004’s Bamnan and Slivercork, established it as the sort of band that must, by ancient law and venerated tradition, be referred to as “quirky,” “off-kilter” or at the very least “out of left field.” The music—which earned Midlake comparisons aplenty to similarly afflicted bands like The Flaming Lips, Grandaddy and Mercury Rev—was essentially ’60s psych-pop revivalism dressed up with enough synthesizers, sense of humor and modern lo-? sensibility to keep it from feeling overly retro. But the band’s fans may be surprised to find that on its second release, The Trials of Van Occupanther, it has pulled up stakes, abandoned its late-’60s fairground, and moved a scant few years forward to the perhaps not quite as fertile, but certainly far less comprehensively trod-upon terrain of the early ’70s.

The album explodes with “Roscoe,” a forceful, assured song, unmistakably the product of countless hours listening to Neil Young, but polished to a fine Fleetwood Mac sheen the Grizzled One would never approach. Next comes the treacly soft-folk production of “Bandits,” a Nick Drake rip with a twist: singer Tim Smith makes no attempt to evoke the iconic and oft-copied wispy vocals of “Pink Moon.” Any lingering doubt as to whether Midlake is serious about this whole ’70s trip is erased with “Head Home,” which—after a lovely synthesizer intro—reveals itself as the progeny of Blue Öyster Cult. Channeling Nick Drake and Neil Young is an accepted and understandable practice, but pulling out BÖC (and Fleetwood Mac for that matter) can only mean that you have an unaccountable and perhaps self-?agellating desire to revisit even the most dead facets of the already unfashionable ’70s. Except “Head Home” is one of the best songs on the record, with a subtly catchy chorus and exhilarating layers of rich, vivid harmony; it suggests that being chained to a less anxiety-inducingly-great influence allows Midlake to sneak more of what makes it special into the song.

As the album continues, the more obvious references start to melt into a pleasant mélange—CSN harmonies coexist peacefully with orchestral piano-pop flourishes and Midlake’s synthesized elaborations, all measured out and stirred together with perfectionist precision. Van Occupanther feels like a contrarian response to so many bands copping from ’60s psych-pop and ’80s New Wave while leaving out everything in between. And it also feels like the group is rescuing this music from the patchouli-stained clutches of the jamband circuit, a laudable public service.

But the album’s best moment is also its most original, not tied to the ’70s or any other particular decade: “Young Bride” is an essentially unplaceable blend of guitar fingerpicking, Chinese-inflected violin and a tight, dancey drum beat. Reminiscent of The Beta Band’s best material, the song is brilliant and fresh without being quirky. It’s evidence that if Midlake lets all its influences percolate a little longer, and stirs them together a little more vigorously, it will be a mighty force indeed.

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