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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