Midlake can be found somewhere in the curiosity shop of rock. That line might suggest an idea for a film script but we won’t rush to check Jack Black’s schedule right now. Rather we should consider the conundrum that is Midlake. The band started out as a bunch of jazz students at the University of North Texas and four of the present line-up initially functioned under the unlikely name of The Cornbread All-Stars, playing Herbie Hancock style jazz-funk, augmented by a female vocalist, keys and horn section. Ask now where you think the band it became has its origins and Texas would be one of least likely answers.
How then they got to Midlake and a fine seven song debut EP in 2001, Milkmaid Grand Army, with its keen Radiohead influence is probably down to main man, Tim Smith, listening to OK Computer a lot and deciding he needed to trade the sax in for a guitar. A full album, Bamnan & Silvercork, followed in 2004, hallmarked by a style of song construction and delivery much on the lines of Modesto’s finest, Grandaddy. The band then went on to really make its mark with the 2006 release of the sublime The Trials Of Van Occupanther, a landmark recording in anyone’s book.
Four years on and we have The Courage Of Others, a record that feels much more connected to the previous album than do the earlier two. The symmetrical imaged album cover even has a cunning echo of the surreal panther’s head from Van Occupanther in its design. Oddly the cover only features three of the band’s five-piece line up, mirrored almost menacingly in their sackcloth robes, amid a sylvan setting framed to reflect the animal head. The self-produced opus beyond the sleeve showcases some amazing, tight and precise musicianship, playing that is as emotive as it is solid. The band’s musical muse may have shifted from 70’s West Coast soft-rock back a wee bit towards end of the 60’s British folk-rock but the end result presents no great sea change, though a shift from keyboards to guitars at its heart.
The delicate acoustic chord progression which opens the first song, “Acts of Man” recalls Sandy Denny, more so in her solo guise. Tim Smith’s plaintive baritone aided by soft harmonies laments the acts of men who “cause the ground to break open” and the song is delivered with a quiet passion. The tone is set for a contemplative collection, evoking a wish for solitude and flight from human interference with nature. Throughout, though, this is balanced by the sense of surety inherent in the cycle of nature.“Winter Dies” picks up this theme, continuing in a more intense vein with sparse verses punctuated with a fuller band sound, enriched with distorted guitar and crashing percussion through the choruses and instrumental breaks. Year by year, spring brings new life and renewed hope but the singer yearns for what he has lost.
“Small Mountain” begins with a waft of flute, an instrument that features quite prominently on the entire recording, heralding a slightly softer treatment, interrupted by a crashing signature chord here and there. The lyrical poetry is harder to penetrate and words and music almost become one on this song. The lovely “Core of Nature” musically has shades of Van Occupanther about it. The song is built around a couplet taken from a poem by German writer, Goethe: “Into the core of nature/No earthly mind can enter” which seems to encapsulate the impossibility the writer Smith aspires to throughout the record.
“Fortune” provides a breathtakingly beautiful interlude with a Simon &Garfunkel echo in the descending melody of the last line of each verse. At 2 minutes it is over far too soon but you sense that all that needs to be said is here. “Rulers, Ruling All Things” has hints of early Fairport Convention in its intro and the melody echoes the Van Occupanther vibe. The song has more of a celebratory tone, as the material world is rejected in favour of the natural order: “Thinking the world was mine to be lost in/I ran with freedom and sang in between/For I had the path of wonder, there before me.”
Pentangle fingerpicking opens “Children of the Grounds” but the song develops into more of a mid tempo rocker as the subject matter shifts ground to memories of childhood and a plea for tolerance. This is one of the strongest and most accessible songs here. On “Bring Down”, guest vocalist Stephanie Dosen adds some tender harmonies alongside Tim Smith. She adds an interesting resonance that would work on more than this single song. The descending instrumental melody line reminds me of The Eagles’ “Hotel California”. No bad thing. Better to fly like an eagle than be brought down.
“The Horn” kicks in with electric guitar straight out of late sixties folk-rock heralding a more full-on treatment of a song of everyman. Smith at times incants the lyrics as much as sings them and the result is a powerful reminder of our shared humanity. By contrast, the title track begins as a more stripped back and low-key affair, with the singer’s anxieties laid bare, before the song resolves in an extended, though not over-indulgent, coda. We conclude with “In The Ground” in which the imagery of death gives way to something more hopeful, mirrored by nature’s recovery. Musically this is as intense at is it fitful.
The Courage Of Others is a beguiling record, which demands careful attention. Otherwise you might mistake subtlety for similarity. It suggests a band with the maturity and confidence to wear its musical influences on its sleeve yet with the ability to distill them into something wholly fresh and different. Rather than the wheel being reinvented, it’s like the wheel has yet to be fully worked out. There is beauty in something quite as timeless, organic, and composed as this triumphant recording. Not everyone will get this, but believe me it’s worth the effort.
Courage of Others