Hailing from Denton, Texas, Midlake's sophomore album proper, The Trials of Van Occupanther, is a glorious concept record that evokes the best qualities of 70's soft rock a la America and Fleetwood Mac. Loosely following the title character through trials and tribulations in the 1800's, with lyrical imagery recalling harsh winter landscapes, dangerous highwaymen, arranged marriages and stone masonry, the album combines gorgeous harmonies, sweeping melodies and a mish-mash of modern rock instrumentation and classical woodwinds and piano. Principal songwriter and lead vocalist Tim Smith hooks us early with the superb opening track "Roscoe," in which a driving piano leads to story-esque lyrics like "The mountaineers gathered timber piled high/In which to take along/Traveling many miles knowing they'd get here/When they got here all exhausted/On the roof leaks they got started/And now when the rain comes we can be thankful."
On it's heels is "Bandits," a sweet meditation on life-changing events in which the protagonist laments, "Did you ever want to be overrun by bandits/To hand over all your things and start over new?" This song in particular is reminiscent to the work of, say, Jimmy Webb and America's collaboration on songs from The Last Unicorn. It has a wee bit of a folk feel, weaving stark reality with just a bit of childlike innocence and sense of the magical. The tempo picks up, but the melancholy feeling of rapidly-disappearing daylight remains on "Head Home," in which Occupanther states, "Bring me a day full of honest work/And a roof that never leaks/I'll be satisfied/Bring me the news all about the town/How it struggles to help all the farmers out/During harvest time." After a Steely Dan-ish guitar solo, the song swells as Smith repeats "I'll think I'll head home" until, like the work day before it, it fades into oblivion. "Van Occupanther," the title-ish track, ambles along, another song dripping with hard labour, and as he struggles to get the work done ("These buckets are heavy/I've filled them with water/I could ask these people but I shouldn't bother") a nicely placed flute keeps him company.
One of the most popular tracks on the album (and deservedly so), "Young Bride" is the most accessible indie-rocker of the bunch: a slightly off-kilter but purely killer percussion track pushes the song to a boil. The song speaks of youth gone before it's time, due to the harsh conditions of the time--"My young bride/Why are your shoulders like that/Of a tired old woman/My young bride/Why are your fingers like that/Of the hedge in winter." Next up is "Branches," a Radiohead-esque slow burner, followed by "In This Camp," a chronicle of war-torn romance, which turns nicely into "We Gathered In Spring," in which Smith reminisces from a hilltop "On a clear day I can see/My old house and my wife/In the front yard talking with the friends." The inevitable snowfall haunting weary travelers is the subject of "It Covers the Hillsides," an up-tempo sing-along with a nice synth refrain. The album closes with two similar stories of love-lost and missed connections in "Chasing After Deer," and the short but bittersweet "You Never Arrived."
One wonders if Midlake's next release will be a complete departure from the styles exhibited here nicely, as their first album, "Bamnam and Silvercork" was reminiscent of Flaming Lips psych-rock. Whatever it is, I'm hungry to hear it.
*Note: It's been over three days since my last blog posting. My promise to you, readers. If, in the event that more than three days pass, I will post a picture of Scott Baio. So here ya go! And apologies for the delay!*