Midlake: Trials of Van Occupanther

By Trevor Hill

Midlake didn't get the attention they deserved for 2004's excellent, tricky to pronounce LP, Bamnan and Slivercork. Fans of their whimsical debut may find The Trials of Van Occupanther a major departure, steeped in 1970s singer-songwriter stylings of Fleetwood Mac or Todd Rundgren. Here, violin, bassoon, and flute replace Bamnan's heavy reliance on electronics to create the psychedelic shine.

Trials tells of stonecutters and mountaineers traveling long and hard, delivered in two and three-part harmonies to a time when houses were made of stone and cedar and built by the people who lived in them. The leadoff track, "Roscoe," contains one of the most difficult lyrics of 2006, "Whenever I was a child I wondered what if my name had changed into something more productive like 'Roscoe' born in 1891, waiting with my aunt Roselyn." This idea sets the tone of the album melodically and topically.

"Bandits" begins with quiet strumming, accompanied by a simple electric piano reminiscent of the bridge from "Pink Moon." Imagery of being overrun by bandits and having to forage through the forest for food is echoed by the stripped-down feel of the instrumentation. Without directly naming landmarks of the American frontier, all the elements are present and untamed: oxen, deer, rabbits, and the push toward the coast.

The piano strikes mostly fifths, those sacred, puritan notes that cannot help but please the ear. Songs refer to wives and marriage, an institution so un-rock it's nearly impossible to avoid cheesiness, but Midlake pull it off by the power of front man Tim Smith's voice. Musically, there's not much untreaded ground, but there are enough interesting narrative melodies and harmonies to ensure repeated listens, well through the album's toned-down second half.

Many of the songs allude to a return to nature paired with instrumentation much tighter and organic than previous forays into fuzzier sounds, which is what a great band should do during two years between albums. Songs take longer to deliver, like the Pony Express, but we are more patient in a sparse American West before the invention of the automobile.

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[Published on: 10/24/06]

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shainhouse starstarstarstarstar Mon 11/6/2006 10:42AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

excellent band, album and review. triple threat!

mrkrinkle6884 starstar Wed 11/15/2006 09:04AM
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Just bought this CD. Sad to say not impressed. I was told its like the darker stuff of Fleetwood Mac, maybe i had to High of standards. I wish I had went with my other choice John Zorn/Electric Masada or Praxis/Sacrifist.

All Loving Liberal White Guy Fri 11/17/2006 06:08PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

All Loving Liberal White Guy

mr. krinkle, i too wasn't too pleased when i first heard this album but for me it was one of those things where i just had to listen to it a couple of times before it grew on me and now i can't stop listening to it. give it a few whirls see if it clings to ya. either way, happy listening.

mrkrinkle6884 starstarstarstarstar Sun 11/19/2006 08:38AM
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Ciffy, my favorite track was #3, I cant even remember the name. I wish I would had burned the CD on my computer before returning it....but that would be dishonest. I traded it in and got Birds of Fire from Mahavishnu

All Loving Liberal White Guy Sun 11/19/2006 11:46AM
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All Loving Liberal White Guy

birds of fire is one bad ass album. amongst the rank and file of my vinyl collection. i have a feeling that you wont be returning that one anytime soon.