By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"It couldn't be helped," Smith says. "I get nostalgic."
It all seems a direct reflection of Smith's own personality. He is a stoic man of few words. His brow is constantly furrowed, casting him as a man whose mind is consistently consumed in thought. When he speaks—and he does so softly and carefully, much like he does with his singing voice—his bandmates all too willingly grant him the floor. His words are few, but compelling. The Courage of Others is 42 minutes of this indulgence, which, if nothing else, certainly seems genuine and intelligent and, more than that, wise.
Ultimately, that is the unrelenting power this album so brilliantly claims.
"We're raised in a town/Where they'll jump on your backs like children/And they'll lead you on/And they'll lead you on/And we're all undone in this town."
—"Children of the Grounds"
External reviews and eventual album sales figures aside, this much is sure about The Courage of Others' impending reception: In this often-confounding college town, the album will be revered without question.
Of all the talented musicians Denton has produced—from Sly Stone and Don Henley to Norah Jones and current chart-topping country act the Eli Young Band—none has ever so proudly claimed Denton its home as Midlake has. It's an important distinction: For decades, Denton has seemed on the precipice of exploding as an internationally respected music hub.
Recent years have found the city earning more and more praise. In a 2007 profile of Midlake, The Guardian proclaimed the town a "buzzing" music community. In 2008, Paste magazine proclaimed it "the best music scene" of the year. This past August, Pitchfork, while offering up a free download of a song from the Denton-based instrumental project Abacus, marveled aloud "What's in the water in Denton, Texas?"
Because it's in Texas, Denton is most often discussed as a miniature Austin, thanks to its strong musician-per-citizen count. But a more fitting comparison for Denton, perhaps, would be with Athens, Georgia. Both towns revolve around public universities. The two cities are also nearly identical in terms of population (according to the 2007 U.S. census, each claims just a hair under 120,000 residents) and both revel in a proud independent musical history. Athens' products read like a who's who of the past 20 years of college rock: R.E.M., The B-52's, Indigo Girls, Matthew Sweet, The Whigs, Widespread Panic, Neutral Milk Hotel, Deerhunter, Of Montreal, Danger Mouse—the list goes on. Denton's own list is impressive, if diminished somewhat when compared with Athens'.
Before Midlake, few Denton-based acts—at least ones that proudly called Denton home in their band bios—made much of a blip on the national radar. Even today, it's a problem that persists. Among the city's most talented products is Alan Palomo, the 21-year-old, '80s-obsessed pop mastermind behind the blogosphere-buzzing Neon Indian, VEGA and Ghosthustler. Despite each of his bands forming in Denton and comprising Denton musicians, each act frustratingly lists Austin as its home.
It's a struggle long familiar to the regional music scene (see "Dallas, Austin and the Ownership of Stevie Ray Vaughan"—another story for another time), but, these days, Denton is working hard to change that fact. This year, the town hosts the second go-round of its North by 35 Music Conferette, a four-day music festival/conference that aims to highlight the town's independent music prowess. Unlike last year's inaugural affair, this year's attempt finds the city of Denton backing its efforts.
And, with that backing, the festival has become more ambitious. This year's ordeal will climax with a free outdoor concert headlined by legendary festival performers, and former Midlake tourmates, The Flaming Lips. In the press release announcing the band's appearance at NX35, the Lips' manager emphasized the respect the band has for outfits like Midlake "that have stayed in the area they were originally starting out from."
Midlake, as it once did in 2005, will fittingly reprise its role as Flaming Lips openers, serving as the second headliners on the free outdoor show. As things stand now, it will be Midlake's lone performance in the DFW region in support of Courage.
But that's appropriate. It was at a listening party for the new album where Pulido made the initial announcement of the Lips' appearance at the March festival.
Indeed, if Denton is to become Athens, then Midlake, it stands to argue, is its R.E.M.-apparent, the band that proudly carries its town's torch and pushes its city beyond the bubbling phase and into legitimacy.
"I hate to put that much onus on them," says Chris Flemmons, the man behind the NX35 Conferette and another successful Denton indie music product, The Baptist Generals. "Anybody who's staying here and getting attention is really good for the whole collective of the town. It benefits everybody. In that sense, I don't know anybody who wouldn't want the album to do well. When you have a band that's gotten the critical attention that they've gotten, there's a whole press cycle—for the band and the city. And those guys [in Midlake], they won't even talk to the press unless they can talk about their hometown."