Midlake lead singer Tim Smith must be some kind of nature freak. He has written songs about chasing deer off cliffs and being a rustic pioneer in the 19th century. His song titles have ranged from the simple “Branches” to the more descriptively named “Chasing After Deer.” Based in Denton, Texas, Midlake established its tree-hugging, deer-hunting reputation with 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther, a wonderfully crafted album that waxes poetic on all things woodsy and of-the-earth. After a long four years, the Texas quintet followed up with The Courage of Others, which pursues the same vein as Van Occupanther, but without the enchanting and visual quality of its predecessor.
The Courage of Others
If Van Occupanther is Stevie Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac, then The Courage of Others is the band’s homage to Jethro Tull. Courage wouldn’t sound out of place in King Henry VIII’s court, or even as the soundtrack to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — all that’s missing is a lute.
Instead of understated keyboards, harmonies and acoustic guitars, Midlake has altered its sound to include sampled woodwinds, flutes and heavier electric guitars for an all-around denser production. Rather than drawing listeners in with vivid visions of early settlers roughing it in the woods, The Courage of Others holds off on the details both lyrically and musically, attempting to connect, but never quite getting there. Midlake seems to be lost in the woods this time around.
Tracks like “Core of Nature” and “Winter Dies” ponder philosophical man-versus-earth issues in slow, dark minor key settings. Smith’s dusky tenor is buried beneath the mix and affected with a new droning quality that lacks inflection. On “Small Mountain,” it isn’t difficult to picture Smith singing with his mouth barely moving as the vocals murmur on monotonously.
Even so, Midlake has matured considerably. Courage is evidence of a band with a firm grasp of its musical direction, even if the end result may not be too warm or inviting. The instrumentation is impeccable, but the overall effect is lackluster. Throughout the record, the music floats on, fluttering gently in the background and never quite transcending prettiness for greatness. A few songs do stand out, however, namely the single “Acts of Man,” which leads in with a medieval-sounding guitar and reaches the most satisfying crescendo on the whole album. Likewise, “The Horn” serves as the best example of the album’s tendency to intertwine crunchy guitars with softer flutes.
The Courage of Others may be an enjoyable listen, but it lacks punch. Though it falls somewhat flat after the stellar Van Occupanther, Midlake stays true to its ideals, eschewing any outside expectations. Unlike other bearded, pastoral bands like Fleet Foxes and Blitzen Trapper, Midlake focuses not on man’s harmonious relationship with nature, but on the struggle and pursuit of meaning within its boundaries. The record doesn’t try for the same commercial appeal of Midlake’s previous album, but aims to convey the trouble and hardship of “earthly minds” interacting with a higher being (as stated on “Core of Nature”). Still, the album lacks a big, sweeping chorus that could garner Midlake any radio play, like its superb indie-hit “Roscoe” did in 2006.
Midlake is already an excellent live band, and maybe what the songs need is an injection of life on the stage. Until then, the would-be mountaineers of Midlake will probably still be wandering through a pine forest, ever ruminating on their next attempt to deepen their ties with Mother Nature.