By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Sometimes I want to go home
And stay out of sight for a long time.
—From "The Trials of Van Occupanther"
The wonderings and wanderings of Midlake's music is a venture through a romanticized past—an escape from the white noise of modern society into a simpler age characterized by lumberjacks and stonecutters, log cabins and open fires—that rekindles an oft-forgotten sense of tradition. The Denton quintet's sophomore splendor in the grass, The Trials of Van Occupanther, their first release in the States, revels in this bittersweet nostalgia while creating something timeless in the process.
The album's opening song, "Roscoe," gently introduces this rustic, familiar setting, sometime after the gold rush, as a rigid guitar cuts through the atmospheric layers of harmonies and keyboards like a handsaw. "Whenever I was a child I wondered what if my name had changed into something more productive like Roscoe/Been born in 1891/Waiting with my Aunt Rosaline," singer Tim Smith ponders before drawing the listener into his pastoral vision, "1891/They looked around the forest/They made their house from cedars/They made their house from stones/Oh, they are a little like you/And they're like me."
The retreat into the comfort of a community that is found in a song such as "Head Home" is captured through the combination of Smith's lyricism, which draws on sentiments similar to Smith's favorite poet Robert Bly and the short stories of Rick Bass, and the musical influence of Lindsey Buckingham-era Fleetwood Mac. "Bring me a day full of honest work and a roof that never leaks/I'll be satisfied/Bring me the news all about the town/How it struggles to help all the farmers out during harvest time."
"It all just came naturally to me," Smith says from New Orleans during Midlake's first proper nationwide tour, which stops at the Granada Theater on Saturday before another stint at SXSW in March and an extensive European tour. "Whenever I'm writing a song, I always have [a] picture in my head, a mental image of the action that's going on in this particular scene. I enjoy classical music and great works of art, and I feel like there's a shared beauty surrounding those themes."
Though Smith writes through the perspective of characters such as Van Occupanther, it's the universal elements of human nature within each that bring them to life. "Bandits" reveals a desire to start anew in a different place and time, regenerated like plants in the springtime, while elements of isolation and self-discovery are repeatedly presented in songs such as "In This Camp," "Chasing After Deer" and "It Covers the Hillside."
"Those are all feelings that I have," Smith relates. "When I say something like 'It's hard for me but I'm trying,' it's very real. I do feel that way a lot. I'm not perfect. I don't write the greatest music. I don't have the best voice. I'm trying to create something unique from that."
What's most surprising is the band's paradigm shift from their spaced-out, Grandaddy- and Radiohead-fueled synthesized debut, Bamnan and Slivercork, to the FM radio-era folk rock of The Trials of Van Occupanther. "It all hinges on what you listen to," Smith reckons. "I really fell in love with the style of the '70s—Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, America, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. There's a real honesty and sincerity in that music that I love. Anything that says it's from 1975, I'll buy. If you just look at the album covers or the live videos, there's a certain quality there that I just find very romantic, very meaningful. I'm very connected to that. I don't know if it's more sincere than the music today, but it certainly seems that way to me. It doesn't seem so concerned with images or the forces of commercialism. It just made me change what I wanted to sound like."
For Smith, who was working on an assembly line inserting AAA batteries into children's toys during the writing and recording of the album, the levitation toward a more natural realm was an escape from his industrial disillusion, like Thoreau retreating into the woods at Walden Pond. "I feel like I'm coming from a slightly different place," Smith says. "I can't really write from the perspective of someone in New York or the big city. I write about what hits close to home. It's nothing like turning on MTV and figuring out what's hot. For me, it's as simple as comparing the man-made world and the beauty of nature—I guess I tend to lean toward the more natural. Maybe I do long for a simpler time."
Creating this portal into the past proved no easy feat. The album was self-recorded through a meticulous process of trial and error. "We had to do everything in small segments, so it took us forever. And there wasn't a producer or engineer helping us along, teaching us how to get the right sounds. We had to record some of the songs two or three times. That's the third version of 'Roscoe.' We didn't really know what we were doing, so we just had to keep at it."
Midlake is already piecing together songs for their next record, tentatively titled The Courage of Others. "I feel like it's going to be a better album already," Smith confides. "We just want to create something that people can connect to."