THE TRIALS OF VAN OCCUPANTHER by midlake

by Gordon

Pitchfork: 6.8           Rolling Stone: N/A           Metacritic: 79           Spin: N/A

 

Released: July 2006
Tracklisting:
  1. Roscoe
  2. Bandits [LISTEN]

  3. Head Home
  4. Van Occupanther
  5. Young Bride
  6. Branches
  7. In This Camp
  8. We Gathered in Spring
  9. It Covers the Hillsides
  10. Chasing After Deer
  11. You Never Arrived

   I was turned onto Midlake back in 2008 with the songs “Branches” and “Young Bride”, well after the release of their second full-length album from which they hail, The Trials of Van Occupanther. It was a sound I wasn’t totally accustomed to, nor one I was sure would draw me into a long-term relationship with the band. But, as with anything new and awesome (Andy Kaufman, Jurassic Park, The Beatles), it did.

   There’s a general tone of 70s classic rock-type stuff going on throughout the album, intentional or not I’m not sure, but conclusions can hardly stop there, as much of what turns Midlake’s songs into unclassifiable pieces all their own is due in large part to singer Tim Marsh, whose earthy, melancholy vocals, frequently beautifully harmonized, travel up and down the melodic hills written into just about every song. The album is infused with imagery of nature, dwellings in nature, and those who travel between the two, conjured up by way of his lyrics and perhaps even just the sound of his voice.

   Opening track “Roscoe” (video here) is a fan favorite, a combination of simple chords put to a simple beat, comfortably paced, by no means poppy, and by no means a downer, but falling into a neutral tone found pretty consistently throughout the album. Piano, guitar and bass dominate the soundscape (aside from the harmonies), but when filling a lyricless gap, instead of traditional piano riffs or guitar solos, the instrumental aid comes in the form of spacier keyboard voices or analog synthesizers. These, while a much heavier influence on previous and debut album Bamnan and Silvercorck, are still a definitive presence on Van Occupanther, distinguishing the band’s sound from that of mere dated classic rock.

   Track #2, “Bandits”, is my personal favorite, and one of the lighter tunes on the album, a magical blend of acoustic guitar plucking/strumming, piano, and even occasional flute. It is the best example of Smith’s up-and-down vocal sensibilities, exploring all possible facets of every chord. Maybe I read too much into a band’s outfits, but i can see myself following behind as the last lines are sung… “When the winter comes and the greenery goes we will make some shelter.”

   Skipping ahead but not yet halfway through the CD, “Young Bride” offers arguably the most unique musical accompaniment to Marsh’s lyrics, a faster-paced drumming and bass pattern comprising the bulk of the song, at bridge and chorus supporting a one-of-a-kind (Asian-inspired?) string arrangement. The following track, “Branches”, is another personal favorite, probably because of its dance between two very different tones. After emerging from a darker, more minor piano ballad of an opening (not without its share of mesmerizing harmonies), it reaches a happier, lighter tune (countered by some of the darkest, most bittersweet lyrics found on Van Occupanther. After touching back into the minor chords and later emerging once more, it closes in a drawn-out continuation of his earlier sentiments: “We won’t get married/ ‘Cause she won’t have me/ She wakes up awfully early these days/ And there’s no one else so kind/ There’s no one else to find/ It’s hard for me but I’m trying,” (the last line echoed over and over into the fadeout).

   “We Gathered in Spring” is another relatively/ambiguously happy tune that most boldly embraces synthesizer-type voices that embellish the chorus and instrumental bridges, hearkening back to the tonal likes of Emerson, Lake and Palmer for one. This might be the one to roll the windows down and sing to, Smith stirring up for me romantic inklings of an idealistic future picture with: “On a clear day I can see my old house and my wife in the front yard talking with the friends.”

   “It Covers the Hillsides”, “Chasing After Deer” and “Head Home” (video here) are other notable songs, and really, there’s no bad song on the album. Nothing feels out of place either. Whether this cohesive work was a formidable undertaking or a natural effort on the band’s part, it certainly comes across as the latter. It’s unfortunate to note that their newest release, The Courage of Others, was, pardon the pun, a much less courageous piece of work, but for now, I’ll continue to stick up for Midlake, directing curious hopefuls to Van Occupanther first.

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