“We’re not all the same in this town”
I’ll be honest; I was really worried about this one. Midlake seemed destined for a metaphorical crash. The Denton, Texas band morphed with each album, changing up styles and atmospheres as if donning fashionable coats. That is until they seemed to hit their stride with The Trials of Van Occupanther, an album so steeped in smooth ’70s Laurel Canyon rock that it had many listeners pondering the purchase of a conversion van with the album cover from Rumours painted on the side. “Roscoe” alone wooed many listeners to the sound of Midlake. The question became whether the band would simply remake the album that gave them moderate success or trudge off into an altogether new direction, possibly alienating those fans they just won over. The Courage of Others displays an odd combination of the two, building off of the gentle foundations in Trials while incorporating new influences, blending it all into a soothing mythological bit of stoic whimsy.
Denton, Texas might be the last place you’d expect to find a renaissance fair, but Midlake seems to have made themselves the appropriate band to play one, should it ever come around. From the druidic robes on the album’s symmetrical cover to the repeated references to lords, woods, kings, villages and fields, Midlake has recast themselves yet again, not back to the ’70s again, but to a time they’d be called “Ye Olde Midlake.” Singer Tim Smith has expressed his love for Jethro Tull in the past, and on album opener, “Acts of Man,” he indulges in a little flute rock fantasy. I know, how absolutely stereotypical of a Texas rock band. Smith’s voice is still as sedate as a Gregorian chanter with lockjaw, but that’s what provides such a luxuriant aspect to each track.
Much has already been said of the band’s newfound penchant for ’60s British folk, and bands such as Pentangle and Fairport Convention. All of this does inform Courage, but it merely adds to the Midlake texture rather than overpower it. Songs like “Winter Dies” carry on a prog aspect the band has held onto, the song sounding a lot like David Gilmour era Pink Floyd. “Bring Down” exhibits the Radiohead likenesses that Midlake has displayed in the past, this time echoing “Exit Music (For a Film),” even going so far as to have a female backup singer, a Juliet to Tim Smith’s Romeo. It instantly became a personal favorite. If there is anything seemingly ‘Texan’ about the album, it is that certain songs have a building post-rock aspect to them, cinematic and potentially explosive, but all beneath the surface. “Rules, Ruling All Things” is one of those smoldering tunes that is part Trials and part Explosions in the Sky, an appropriately epic centerpiece for such an album of expansiveness.
Ultimately, the musicianship and melody are what will lead this album to stick with you. “Small Mountain” and “Core of Nature” are two excellent examples of tracks that will have lasting effects, breakdowns and buildups rolling around in the most unexpected of instances. “Fortune”‘s delicate acoustic guitar is particularly rooted in ’60s folk, like a lost Nick Drake tune. Fans looking for the next “Roscoe” need look no further than “Children of the Grounds,” a track that expands upon that successful single while retaining its original charm. Though each song might have separate touchpoints of reference, all flow together as a whole nicely, making it the most cohesive album that Midlake has produced yet. Though laced with Middle Age imagery, flights of fancy, and ye olde instruments, the harpsichord and flute, The Courage of Others is still a rock record, and a damn good one at that.