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Did You Ever Want To Run Around With Bandits?

 

Midlake: The Trials of Van Occupanther

Bella Union, 2006

Rating: 4.5

 

Posted: October 16, 2006

By Laurence Station

Midlake’s sophomore release, The Trials of Van Occupanther, is a spectral, temporally dissociative work. There’s the ’70s soft rock compositional sheen -- think America or a more understated, less obvious Lindsey Buckingham during his creative peak with Fleetwood Mac -- commingling with such atypical rock lyrics as, “They roamed around and foraged / They made their house from cedars / They made their house from stones” (from the impressive, tone-setting opener “Roscoe”). Themes dealing with home and hearth, isolation and circumspection imbue Van Occupanther with uncommon substance. Ultimately, it’s a song cycle about people finding the best footing in an uncertain world, whether that means settling down or venturing further along the road of experience, all to an easy-gliding, unapologetically retro backdrop.

Unlike Bamnan and Slivercork, Midlake’s 2004 debut, The Trials of Van Occupanther relies less on electronic embellishments, emphasizing traditional piano and acoustic guitars, while mixing in strings, flutes and French horns. In terms of tonal balance, consistency of flow and maturity of lyrics, it's a quantum leap over the group’s initial effort. Lead singer/songwriter Tim Smith has surpassed the Grandaddy-derivative quirkiness that colored the band’s debut and latched onto a singular worldview that holds firm across the span of the album. While Midlake may not have found its mature voice, Van Occupanther is undeniable proof that the group has discovered a wonderfully distinctive mode of communication.

“Bandits” wrestles with the notion of giving up a safe domestic existence for the life of a rogue; “Head Home” affirms which choice was made. The unassuming “Van Occupanther” favors a full retreat from earthly burdens: “Let me not be too consumed with this world / Sometimes I want to go home / And stay out of sight for a long time.”

Van Occupanther’s strongest moment, both musically and lyrically, arrives on “Young Bride,” with its urgent beat, emotionally resonant violin and concern over harsh winters and things lurking in dark, forbidding forests. There’s a yearning to protect the titular character, and yet the feeling of an emotional distance that may never be bridged. Follow-up “Branches” reinforces the concept of matrimonial hardship (“We won’t get married / ’Cause she won’t have me”), in which even reaching the altar proves a challenge. These songs cement an image of young couples on the periphery of civilization, pioneers exploring a rustic environment filled with promise, both heavenly and hellish in nature, where the future is anything but guaranteed.

“In This Camp” fumbles toward domesticity, seeking a more perfect union, and all the pressures that come with it, as a familiar pattern of swelling choruses and a rhythmically passionate backbeat accentuate Smith’s reservedly earnest vocals. With such a dogged commitment to a particular vibe, Midlake has essentially pinned all of its hopes on a single, extremely familiar style. Those not grooving to the early ’70s folk-rock aesthetic will be hard-pressed to embrace the work.

Regardless of taste, it’s difficult to not give props to a band that crafts original, evocative lines like “No one lives to be three hundred years / Like the way it used to be / I think they were giants” (from “We Gathered In Spring”). This is rich, rewarding stuff, literate but not pretentious, warm but never maudlin. While The Trials of Van Occupanther may never be more than a cult favorite, those seeking to till peculiarly American musical soil will undoubtedly reap a rewarding and plentiful harvest.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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