Midlake - The Courage of Others

by Rich Morris Rating:4 Release Date:2010-02-01

Texan five-piece Midlake are contemporary Americana's incorrigible magpies, on each album dipping into a different period of rock history and appropriating what they find. Their last album, 2006's The Trials of Van Occupanther was an elaborate, often enjoyable homage to the mid-70s classic rock of Fleetwood Mac and Crosby, Stills and Nash, with a few terrific songs (check out 'Young Bride'). The Courage of Others sees them disinterring Fairport Convention era English prog-folk - in other words, doing what Espers and The Decemberists have already done in recent years. But whereas those two bands added powerful and mysterious twists to the dormant genre, Midlake struggle to come up with anything truly surprising or memorable, and despite some pretty moments, the exercise (unless I'm missing something) feels largely pointless. Worse, the pervading atmosphere is one of portentous gloom, and you will find yourself wishing that they would, for fuck's sake, just lighten up a bit.

Now, sigh, to write about the songs, which would be easier if I could tell them apart. 'Small Mountain' begins well, and then doesn't go anywhere interesting at all. 'Bring Down' sounds suspiciously like Radiohead's 'Exit Music', yet even duller. Closer 'In the Ground' opens with a lovely acoustic guitar part, but winds up being as depressing as you would expect with that title. Overall, though, picking notable moments is difficult, because for the most part, things congeal into one dark, dispiriting whole, each track having the same ominous tone, the same tiresomely brooding ambience. Tim Smith's lyrics - delivered in a throaty growl that, again, rarely changes throughout the record - are mostly concerned with the eerie and immutable power of nature (sample song titles: 'Children of the Grounds', 'Winter Dies'), but lack any particularly resonant or striking phrases, and everything is so cheerless, so humourless, so bloody dreary, that you are quickly ground down into the earth that the band are so obsessed with. There are some pleasant songs here, like the lovely ballad 'Fortune' (the shortest and most atypical track on the album) and 'Winter Dies', which would sound great on a mixtape, but here is lost amidst nine other songs that sound almost identical.

One thing I can't impugn about Midlake is their musicianship, which is perfect throughout - there are no rough edges on The Courage of Others. It's all very tasteful, very staid; there's nothing remotely unusual here, nothing transgressive, nothing that makes you stop and think "What was that?" This is all very well for a particular brand of Mojo-reading fifty-something (no disrespect intended to fifty-somethings or Mojo readers) who gets excited by deluxe 12-disc Neil Young boxsets, and for whom all music after 1975 (except for Dylan's latest 'masterpiece', of course) is an unfathomable, terrifying noise, but it doesn't cut it for anyone who wants to be moved or startled by what they listen to. If you want a brilliant modern update of dreamy psych-folk, get Espers II, or The Hazards of Love, or Marissa Nadler's astounding Bird on the Water, and leave Midlake playing to the dwindling band of folk revivalists at whom this record must surely be aimed.

Pete Sykes

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