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    Tuesday, July 11, 2006

    Review #1: The Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake

    The Trials of Van Occupanther - Midlake
    (Bella Union)

    Turn off the lights and kill your TV. Come back to a simpler time of makeshift shelters and rationed supplies, where land was still largely untouched. That’s the world of Van Occupanther, a lonely 19th century scientist with a romantic streak. It may sound like a setting more suited for Thoreau than a band from Denton, Texas. But then Midlake isn’t your typical band and The Trials of Van Occupanther isn’t your typical album.
    "Have you ever wanted to be overrun by bandits,/ to hand all over of your things and start over new?"

    Stepping back from their quirkier, keyboard-driven debut, Banman and Silvercork, Midlake has indeed started over new. Their sound is sparser and slower now, with pianos and guitars leading the way. '70s rock has become a big influence, while psychedelic, folk and country grace notes add to the mix. But what comes through most importantly is the music’s sweetness. Uncluttered and delicate, the melodies shine through time after time. They're ideal traveling companions for Tim Smith’s vocals, evoking the pastoral themes that Smith is singing of.

    "Bring me a day full of honest work/ and a roof that never leaks/ I'll be satisfied"

    Smith's deliveries are, simply put, beautiful. They're sincere and expressive whether he’s singing about his character surviving the winter or perennial heartbreak. They're impressive even when he's singing about mundane things like gathering firewood and laboring. On the few occasions when he gets to fully display his capacity, like the near-operatic opening to "Branches," the results are obvious highlights. Among the first six songs though, there's practically an embarrassment of highlights to choose from.

    "And after a while, you can’t keep up/ so you start to lag behind"

    Unfortunately, that last quote might be the most telling. In the legacy of so many frontloaded records, Midlake makes the mistake of a weakened second half. The arrangements generally don’t sound as fresh. "In This Camp" feels twice as long as earlier songs of the same length. The two closing songs are disappointingly anticlimactic, considering all of the pinnacles achieved on Side A. And most distracting and out of place are the electronic flourishes on "We Gathered In Spring." They always pull me out of the song, as I keep expecting it to segue into "Come Sail Away."

    Despite these late flaws, The Trials of Van Occupanther remains a largely stunning listen. Unlike most of its trendier contemporaries, it bravely sets out on its own hermitic trail. More often than not, it also delivers the gorgeous territories it's seeking. 7.5/10

    Download "Roscoe" and stream "Van Occupanther" and "We Gathered In Spring" here

    Video for The Trials of Van Occupanther's lead single "Young Bride"

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