We went from indie to 70’s folk rock.
This is a phrase that not many credible indie bands have, or will, ever utter, but Midlake have done just this with their sophomore release, The Trials of Van Occupanther. So how exactly does a band go from lo-fi to vintage Fleetwood Mac oriented rock and still sound so down to earth? I guess it has to do with how much is changed in this process; or rather how much isn’t changed. Midlake’s production back in 2004 (when they released their brilliant debut, Bamnan and Silvercork) was still very dense, especially for an indie band, almost as if it were a trying to be what Van Occupanther is, but wasn’t ready for it. There are a lot of pianos and violins in Trials, but what is that, if not a more sophisticated version of Midlake’s quirky synths of previous years. Van Occupanther is at times darker than Midlake’s debut, but never reaches as deep and nervous sounding as Bamnan’s The Jungler. At times it’s brighter, but never quite as cheery and light as They Can Not Let it Expand (also B&S). So what makes The Trials of Van Occupanther sound so goddamned different?
For one Occupanther’s vocals, lovingly laid down by master songwriter Tim Smith, are almost always doubled, tripled, quadrupled or quintupled by backing tracks. The use of backing vocals is also very prominent giving the vocals almost a wave like effect, washing over the listener like a tsunami. Fortunately for fans of Bamnan, Midlake had all the bases covered when it comes to production. Probably the best self production since Radiohead’s OK Computer Smith and Midlake strike a perfect balance between music and vocals, intertwining the two as much as possible. Listen closely on “We Gathered in Spring” for the moment where Smith’s vocals quadruple in layers. If anything this single moment adds more to the music than anything. Another change in Smith’s vocals is that he has broken out of his Thom Yorke/Jeff Mangum phase into an almost exact copy [Grandaddy vocalist] Jason Lyttle, well maybe if Lyttle had a bit of Texas accent.
Another reason this album sounds so different from Bamnan and Silvercork is its guitars. Instead of the perfectly toned electrics on Bamnan we hear an interesting increase in Acoustic guitars. In fact the majority of the electric guitar on Occupanther come in the rather cold and out of place solos. Though it is good to see [Midlake guitarist] Eric Pulido get in a few hot licks many of the solos come in at odd times and seem to be cut and pasted onto the songs original structure, almost as if sampled from a Kansas song or something like that. The violin solo on Young Bride is much more appropriate, a weepy violin solo on a beautiful ballad rather than a Rock riff on a delicate indie popper. And speaking of Young Bride, the album’s first single, it may just as well be the best song on the album. The lyrics are slightly confusing and the musicianship is absolutely fantastic, with crunchy guitar, dancing bass lines and strings of keyboards underneath fantastic drumming and the aforementioned violins. Though it’s not Smith’s best, Bride does also feature some intense falsetto to go along with that fiddle. Young Bride and its follow-up “Branches” end the first half of the record with a bang and get the listener all mushied up to hear… just about nothing special.
Even a passing listener can hear the decrease in quality as track 7, In This Camp, kicks off. The album gets into a bit of a musical rut for a time, with most tracks sounding very very samey. But I guess that’s what you get with this pseudo classic rock: a lot of brilliance and a whole lot of “eh”. But one moment where the album’s latter half soars is in Smith’s lyrics. For example the quirky sadness of “Chasing After Deer” is a definite throwback to the funny little lines that made Bamnan so special.
For myself I must remind
That the woods are usually kind
And the sea is not mine
And when you're all alone
And chasing after deer
Don't be upset if it's scared
And you can't reach it
whispers Smith during the second verse of this second half highlight. And actually the more I listen to this CD the more I hear a story begin to poke its way through the layers of acoustic foliage. To me the album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, tells the story of a young man, born into a rich family, naïve to the world around him, but with a strange curiosity (highlight album opener, Roscoe). The boy is finally shown the horrors of his city’s underworld (Smooth folk ballad, Bandits) and is stunned by his family’s attitude towards the downtrodden. He leaves his family to be with his people in the uplifting pop number, Head Home. The rest of the story intertwines with death, love and some very prominent Moses and the Jews sort of moments to make for one of the most profound, if a little disappointing albums of this year.
Overall the record is a very well written trek into a place rarely seen by indie fans and players alike. The album takes obvious influences, but it’s very clear that Midlake are still a very original indie rock band that can write a catchy song. Its comedy, its tragedy and its damn good music. The only problem I can see is how it refuses to be listened to for more than 2 or 3 times. I think Midlake fanboy [Skateboarder turned actor] Jason Lee says it best though.
Originally Posted by Lee
The Trials of Van Occupanther is now one of the most important modern records I own. In an age of overly-used irony and disconnected nonchalance, this record actually means something, and Midlake should be forever hailed for their unique and genuine approach to music. Simply put, Van Occupanther has backbone, and the fact that you don't feel cheated by it gives one hope that sincerity can still exist within modern alternative music.