Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Midlake

There's a TV spot in which a family sits around a table eating Cheez-Its. The father wonders aloud, staring in awe at a cracker, how they make them. The son describes two semi-trailers barreling towards one other with a huge hunk of cheese strapped to the grill of one and the other with a large saltine similarly fastened. The inevitable head-on results in the Cheez-It; the same fate applied to peanut butter and chocolate. Here we have the formation of The Trials of Van Occupanther. The tastes smashed together here are that of Gentle Giant, Fleetwood Mac, and Bread in a head-on with Thom Yorke. What we're left with is a slab of easy-listening rock 'n' roll that sounds as if it's found its way through the vortex of time, circa '76. The songs are complex enough to remain interesting over repeated listens and, while not shower-worthy hook-wise, the melodies, coupled with fantastic vocal harmony and tasteful instrumental touches, are quite irresistible. Hard to believe that ten years after the release of Occupanther, this is still a staple on my playlist (it's that modernist version of Gentle Giant that is so appealing).

Back in 2004 when I first heard it, didn't pay much attention to Midlake's first record, Bamnan and Silvercork; not that I found it a poor first effort from the Denton, Texas-based band, far from it, but I was left with the taste of something unfinished, with a band that was still working through their (impressive) list of influences. Two years later, I chanced upon a live recording of "Roscoe" and "Van Occupanther" on the radio and I knew that I was hearing something special, nothing short of a miracle.

Certainly, Radiohead has profoundly influenced Midlake (this is particularly obvious on "Branches", which would not
 have been out of place on an EP of the OK Computer era), but unlike many bands who clumsily struggle to comprehend the riches of OK Computer or even The Bends, Midlake has succeeded in not only understanding, but also seamlessly merging that influence with many others; Fleetwood Mac and America immediately springing to mind. As a result, the LP proposes a musical landscape both familiar and foreign, drawn by layers of melodies deceivingly simple where you feel oddly at home although you've never quite been there before, like a walk in Hobbiton.

Overall, the greatest achievement of this record is not to break new grounds or to revolutionize a genre, but lies in the net of sensations, images and atmosphere it weaves around you. The Trials of Van Occupanther when all is said and done is a feeling that we've been invited to witness a ghostly gathering in forgotten woods, an enchanting picture full of nostalgia but refusing to slumber in gratuitous sadness, almost miraculous and so fragile that you barely dare to breathe for fear that it would disappear in an instant. Hmm, Brigadoon.

I'm sure some folks will find this same record tedious, or at least forgettable, and they would be just as right as I am for lauding it: for it is in the nature of such a musical piece which stands out for creating its own, peaceful niche in the music scene today, to fall flat on some ears. The Trials of Van Occupanther, an outstanding recording that belongs to no other genre but its own, leads a path that includes bands like Beirut, Fleet Foxes and The Decemberists. "While we were out hunting for food/ Our house was being robbed/ I caught an apple and she caught a fox/ So I caught a rabbit but she caught an ox./ So upon our return/ We found everything gone/ Which for us was no loss/ And we started over/ With a rabbit and an ox." Philosophy too? No way.