Midlake: The Courage of Others

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Midlake: <em>The Courage of Others</em>

Shape-shifting Texas band takes hard left turn

The disappointing thing about most Molly Hatchet albums—beside the fact that they’re horrible—is the blatant deception of their covers.

During the band’s heyday, Hatchet album art featured a hulking, wide-eyed barbarian swinging a massive battleaxe as sinew and bits of bone fell about him like crimson snow. It was, in a word, badass. But when you dropped the needle, out came a sickening bilge of chuggin’ boogie blues and butt rock. The only thing hemorrhaging was your ears.

So thank Christ for whoever art-directed Midlake’s new album cover, The Courage of Others. Here we have a pissed-off dude in a hooded cloak looking like the Wizard of Williamsburg, and a vaguely psychedelic mirror-image effect that turns entwined fingers and background trees into buds of broccoli. It’s at once trippy, foreboding, and beguiling. Hit play and immediately it makes sense: Ladies and gentlemen of Midlake fandom, after a nearly four-year layoff, we are taking a hard left turn. Next stop, the Middle Ages.

Whereas 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther, the band’s breakthrough, had lazy journalists reaching for phrases like “modern Fleetwood Mac” or “East Texas Radiohead,” Courage has this lazy journalist reaching for “Baroque Sabbath.”

Gone are the sleepy, piano-driven lo-fi grooves—the nod to ’70s guitar rock that Midlake admittedly did better than most, but that still left them pigeonholed alongside equally mellow bands like Vetiver. This time out, Midlake has left its native Denton, Texas, for a place way south of somber. It’s a much darker, oppressively minor-key world where songs have a madrigal lilt, vocals are layered like sediment, guitars (mostly acoustic) are gently strummed, echoing flutes and droning Floyd-ian keyboards provide atmosphere, and where there is much moping all around. This isn’t metal, but thematically, at least, it’s just as heavy.

At times—in fact, most of the time—this doesn’t even sound like the same band that made Van Occupanther. (Or, for that matter, Bamnan and Slivercork, their Grandaddy-period 2004 debut.) But this is a good thing. Occupanther was a solid record—and “Roscoe” a great song—but the shambling shoegaze pop was familiar. At its best it resembled Grizzly Bear. At it’s worst, alt-Fray. Either way, Midlake didn’t own it. With The Courage of Others, the band’s continual sonic tinkering has led its members down a lonely road they can call their own—a sound of unwavering menace and maddening restraint it’s hard to imagine the rest of the flock following.

The most immediate sign of this sea change is singer Tim Smith’s delivery. Where he chose a high Yorke-ian whine the last time out, he’s now stripped his vocals of almost all color, subduing himself almost to the point of becoming lyrical wallpaper. His lines are still double-tracked, and the delivery—sleepy, erudite, scheming—sounds repetitive at times, but it’s an effective anchor throughout the album, as background vocals billow around, forming a sort of rock ‘n’ roll chamber choir.

Right out of the gate, “Acts of Man” sets the bleak tone, a downtrodden meditation on some end-of-the-world scenario—“If all that grows starts to fade, starts to falter, oh let me inside, let me inside”—where monochrome harmonies brood over strummed guitar. Each verse grows in strength until the end, when the track finally reaches a subdued, yet forceful, gothic release.

This unrelenting but beautiful melancholy forms the glut of Courage. Beauty is key here, especially with a song like “Bring Down,” where an otherwise depressing dirge is given liftoff by Smith’s sweet harmony and a twittering flute. It’s cinematic and slow-building, and would seem right at home soundtracking an ancient massacre on some desolate stretch of Scandinavia as galloping hordes with stone faces crush the enemy in slow-mo beneath their steel.

It’s an exercise in painstakingly plaintive pain that’s not unlike, say, José González. Except that Midlake is smart enough to take time out every couple tracks to wreck your speakers. Guitarist Eric Pulido doesn’t get to announce his presence very often, but when he does—on burners like “Winter Dies” and “The Horn”—he sets fire to the darkness, choking out snarling, sinewy contrails of guitar that sound like lightning squeezed from a tube of toothpaste.

It’s all gloomy and mesmerizing—just like the Wizard of Williamsburg on the cover said it would be.