There's nothing exciting—and certainly nothing glamorous—about the studio in which Midlake recorded its third full-length album, The Courage of Others. Hidden in an office building just a short, two-block walk up North Locust Street from the Courthouse-on-the-Square that serves as Denton's historic center, the studio, from the outside at least, looks like nothing more than an office building loading station—and a vacant one at that.
Were it not for the beat-up blue van and small collection of cars parked out front, one might never notice the spot at all.
Inside, the conditions improve only somewhat and certainly not very much on this first Saturday morning of January, which finds the Denton five-piece's studio in disarray. Instruments are strewn about the floor beside the cases in which they'll be stored on a two-week tour of the Southeast. Other items that will adorn the band's touring setup—namely, a large cloth banner bearing an image of the band as seen on the cover of its new album—further clutter the floor, leaving little room for the band members to move about the space they leased for the purpose of crafting their new album. It's hardly the ideal setting for a claustrophobe—or, for that matter, a missing trinket: "This place is like a black hole," bassist Paul Alexander remarks while scouring the room (unsuccessfully) for a lost piece of equipment.
But it's their black hole. And, though the building's appearance capably hides its gravitas, don't let it fool you: The most important record Denton's ever produced has been crafted here over the course of the last two years. Over that time, as Midlake prepared for, wrote, recorded and re-recorded the 11 songs that make up the band's third full-length album, due out next week, the gravitational pull of this home-away-from-home has consumed each of the five band members' lives.
Like the young boy who decorates his bedroom with posters of his baseball-playing heroes, Midlake has garnished this space with images of its musical icons. The scene seems ripped right from the descriptions of the living room in the house the band shared while writing its first EP, 2001's Milkmaid Grand Army: LPs are tacked onto the wood-paneled walls; their covers showcase the likes of '70s rock icons Edgar Winter and Jethro Tull—acts that, the members of Midlake admit, greatly influenced the direction of their upcoming release.
Anything to keep those much-needed creative juices flowing, it seems. And for good reason too. The Courage of Others is the biggest release of the band's career—in sound, in scope, in ambition. That last bit is particularly crucial: With The Courage of Others, the band, already a familiar and favored name among the snobbiest of music snobs, hopes to expand its audience, to grow into the kind of band the city of Denton has been waiting for—begging for—since it started proclaiming itself the next Austin at the turn of the century.
In short: The Desires of Others.
And, OK, theirs too.
"Before the growth starts to fade, starts to falter/Oh, let me inside, let me inside, not to wait."
—"Acts of Man"
The opening lines of The Courage of Others' lead track, "Acts of Man," stand as a fine analogy of the band's mindset of the moment. Basically, it all boils down to this: 2006's The Trials of Van Occupanther launched Midlake into an enviable position. The band had previously established itself as an experimental, Flaming Lips-lite upstart with its full-length 2004 debut, the bumblingly titled psych-folk Bamnan and Slivercork. That record was a moderately successful local release—but, more important, it earned the band a coveted touring slot opening up for the Lips themselves.
But with Van Occupanther, Midlake reached another plateau: The album came from out of the indie rock ether to garner positive reviews across the board, in publications as varied as Rolling Stone and the United Kingdom's The Guardian. Much of the praise centered on the band's sudden style shift: Van Occupanther was a surprisingly '70s-obsessed romp, one that recalled the likes of Bread and Fleetwood Mac. A nostalgic, ambitious, folk-focused and decidedly un-psychedelic affair, the album wore its influences on its sleeve. Its inspiration—singer/guitarist and songwriter Tim Smith admits to listening to almost no contemporary music—was obvious, but the skill with which the band conjured its precise sound was inspiring.
In turn, the album effectively allowed Midlake entry into the indie bourgeoisie, where it became an act spoken of with reverence. And it was a deserving elevation. Van Occupanther still plays like Chaucer—its slow-burn folk-rock is fairly complex stuff, but it proves endlessly fruitful once grasped.
So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that, even in today's blog-driven and hype-fervent indie music world, Midlake's efforts on that disc, four years later, remain at the front of the minds of the would-be tastemakers of the industry. In December, the powerful, Internet-only Pitchfork Media named Van Occupanther's "Roscoe" the 309th best song of the 2000s in its list of 500; Rolling Stone went farther with its adoration, calling it the 90th best of the '00s on its list of 100.