Midlake
The Trials of Van Occupanther
2006
B-



midlake has the sort of pointedly unremarkable name that—apart from sounding as if they actively want to avoid attention—speaks of idyllic simplicity. So it’s perhaps fitting, then, that their second album should be so strongly steeped in the pastoral, and built around the life of a character (Van Occupanther) that is ill at ease with those around him.

The Trials of Van Occupanther is a more polished album than their more synth-reliant and lo-fi debut Bamnan and Silvercork, drawing heavily on older AOR acts like Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac. It also shows some resemblance to the similarly-influenced Grandaddy. Tim Smith’s softly evocative vocals are joined by excellent harmonies and a thick blend of folk-rock throughout, with an electronic touch here (“We Gathered In Spring”) and a keyboard dab there (“It Covers The Hillsides”). Early on, “Head Home” and “Roscoe” breeze through their five-minute-plus lengths with charming old-time production and chugging guitar. They also introduce the setting: 1891, stone houses, simpler times; and a pleasant, total lack of cleverness.

In fact, instead of a knowing wink, the group often puts you in a place that is bewildering. It reflects the central character of the title, looking on as the world (and the people he loves) changes for the worse around him and never really understanding why it’s happening—though he eventually comes to accept it. His position as the naive outsider is revealed on “Van Occupanther,” where, over understated flute and French horn, he tries to explain his life’s work to other people, only to find that “some get angry and some of them laugh.” “Young Bride” follows and is finer still, beginning with a plaintive violin line before the drums and bass bounce in and, together with those harmonies, take over the lead for much of the song, taking it somewhere more complex. The love of the title may be gone, but it’s not a song of mourning, it’s a song of confusion and winds up far more heartbreaking that way.

Despite these fine moments, occasionally Van Occupanther can feel a little too slick and one-note. It’s certainly not helped by its lackluster second half. There are clever musical touches throughout, and the narrative, though loose, feels complete. But even if you stay the whole way through, you may not leave perfectly satisfied by the conclusion.


Reviewed by: Iain Forrester
Reviewed on: 2006-06-14
Comments (3)

 
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