Jason Lee should know something about ’70s rock. In preparing for his role as Jeff Bebe, the temperamental frontman for the band Stillwater in Almost Famous, he went through a comprehensive `rock school’ with director / music journalist Cameron Crowe and his wife, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson. So, when Jason Lee puts his full backing and stamp of approval on a band, people might stand up and take notice. The current object of Lee’s musical affections is Midlake, a band from Denton, Texas, just releasing their sophomore album, the oddly and charmingly titled, The Trials of Van Occupanther. The album is steeped in the type of ’70s era music that tended to both rock and soothe at the same instance. It is their update and resurrection of that style that makes Van Occupanther one of the most startling and pleasurable CDs of this year or any other.
With as many albums as I listen to per year, it takes something extraordinarily special for it to end up on my end of the year `best of’ list. Rarer still is that album that wends its way into my heart and in repeated play on my stereo despite a backlog of CDs waiting for my perusal. The Trials of Van Occupanther falls into both categories, due to its being one of the most uniquely accomplished, intelligent and exquisite albums I’ve ever heard. Part of that credit could possibly be given to the fact that all of the members were former jazz musicians, and so they bring a more disciplined and polished, yet improvisational sound that is not often found in indie-pop. Part of that credit might also be due to the incredible combination of peak-era Fleetwood Mac guitar rock, the disguised progressive leanings of Radiohead and Grandaddy, and an overall leaning to slay with softness, to make something huge out of something simple. But most of the credit is due to singer, songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist Tim Smith, who, because of his incredibly rich and beautiful voice and ability to write timeless songs, will make his own name synonymous with the paradox of something simple representing something complicatedly original.
The opening track, “Roscoe,” has already been downloaded by over 100,000 listeners thanks to its free mp3 inclusion on hundreds of websites. The song is indicative of what you will find on the rest of Van Occupanther, being a mix of ’70s style California rock balladry and progressive, jazz based pop. Mac fans will surely note a slight resemblance to Christine McVie’s “You Make Loving Fun,” and oddly, Smith’s voice sounds more like McVie than anyone else in her band. “Bandits” finds Smith’s vocals at their finest and most intricate, with notes changing four to five times within the same word. “Head Home” is a remarkably beautiful sing-along with nods to more ’70s rock by acts such as Kansas and the Little River Band. The title track finds some of the more noteworthy lyrics, which is really saying something considering the words to some of the earlier songs. Lines like “Let me not get down if I’m walking with no one” and “Let me not be too consumed with this world” find the subject of Van Occupanther a truly sympathetic character. In “Branches,” Smith claims, “We won’t get married / Cause she won’t have me,” but also, “It’s hard for me but I’m trying.” “Young Bride” is another standout, mostly for what becomes a standard throughout the album, a lovely and hypnotic chorus that rolls around in the forefront of the brain when least expected.
Midlake spent a year recording and perfecting The Trials of Van Occupanther. By its sheer beauty and workmanship, one can easily see how that year was an immense help. By its utter simplicity and seemingly effortless success, one might be amazed at that length of time. Frankly, I don’t care how long it took, or how long it takes Midlake to make another album, just as long as there is another one. I’ve learned not to look a gift horse in the mouth. It’s not often that I follow the advice of a celebrity, much less a former skateboard pro turned celebrity, but lately that seems to have become more than just a badge of honor, but a requisite to indie cred. A shout out from the likes of Elijah Wood, Daniel Radcliffe, John Cusack, or in this case, Jason Lee, could be the `make or break’ moment for particular indie rock acts. The thing about Midlake, however, considering the strength of their sophomore album, is that they probably didn’t even really need it.