So here it goes I floated the idea of a collaboration to my oldest blog buddy around these parts, Mr J Hubner, a friendly gentleman who has very kindly been supporting my (un)humble efforts since early 2013* and a veritable fountain of useful musical steers**. I have learned from him that not all Americans have gun racks fitted to their pickup trucks, completely fail to understand irony and wear stetsons all the time – Who knew that?!
Knowing how much Mr H loved the band Midlake, I pitched the idea of doing a collaboration on their sophomore album The Trials of Van Occupanther, one which I had picked up on spec after reading a couple of gushing reviews. We agreed to write ‘a thing’ together about it and that was that. Anyway bang on time, a typically thoughtful, humorous, analytical and just darned well-written piece appeared in my mailbox. Read it, it’s far better than I could have done:
It was in the fall of 2007 when I first heard the name Midlake. Browsing through the latest copy of SPIN magazine there was a small article about a Denton, TX band called Midlake that was being touted as one of the best live bands currently hitting stages. They were compared to my favorite band at the time, Wilco, as being a force to be reckoned with. Of course, when you bring up Wilco in conversation, especially back in 2007, my ears perked up. “As good as Wilco?”, I thought. “No way” I thought. So I headed to Midlake’s website and watched some of the videos they had posted and was immediately taken by the song “Roscoe”. There was something about that song’s driving rhythm, steady bass line, and Tim Smith’s light and melancholy vocals that hooked me. It sounded dated; not old, but vintage. Like it had been recorded 40 years prior, corked, and left in the cellar to ferment until it hit its peak year, which apparently was 2006. Before I’d even read anything about the album for which “Roscoe” called home I’d gotten this Richard Dashut-produced vibe. The drum and bass felt like it was Rumours-ready, to my ears anyways. Of course then the Fleetwood Mac comparisons were thrown all around in regards to this odd little album called The Trials Of Van Occupanther.
For me the Mac comparisons stopped at the sonic vibe, which was a dry, compressed, and intimate sound that wasn’t being utilized all that much in the 2006-2007 era of music. It was almost jarring at just how quiet and baroque this album was. When I finally received it, along with Midlake’s first record Bamnan And Slivercork, from my wife for my birthday in December of 2007 I was in full-on Midlake fan mode. I really couldn’t get enough of them. The record from start to finish was something I could fall into and happily stay in. Besides the beautiful warm blanket of “Roscoe”, Van Occupanther possessed the driving and gorgeous “Head Home”, the quietly engaging “Van Occupanther”, the folksy “Young Bride”, and the quietly eerie “Branches”. “We Gathered In Spring” is carried along with a dated synth that in any other situation might sound cheesy. Here though, in Midlake’s hands it sounds otherworldly.
Otherworldly I think is a good descriptor for the music Midlake created on this record. And I think a lot of that stems from singer/songwriter Tim Smith. He seems uninterested in trends; in fact I think he probably abhors them. He seems like a man out of time, wanting to create a sound not heard in a long, long while. Or maybe a sound that is completely not of this earth or dimension. Everything about Midlake and Tim Smith screams “not cool”, yet you can’t help but be sucked into the world of Midlake and The Trials Of Van Occupanther. From the song titles, lyrics, and the album art the whole thing feels like it was pulled from some alternate reality. There is both a feeling of medieval times and also some Ray Bradbury-esque alternate dimension where things look oddly familiar, yet increasingly foreign and creepy. Songs like “In This Camp” evoke visions of ancient times and primitive love with lyrics like “In this camp there’s one who delights me/Brings me afternoon tea then she leaves me/When they’re climbing over the sea/She helps to keep our strength complete”. “We Gathered In Spring” is sublime with its mix of acoustic guitars, Oberheim synths, and Smith’s detailed story. “It Covers the Hillsides” revels in its mixture of modern and vintage vibe as the song’s propulsive rhythm dares you to tap your foot.
The Trials Of Van Occupanther captures this tiny piece of musical magic that I haven’t seen since. There’s an innocence in the song craft. There’s a genuine earnestness in the arrangements; flutes, synths, guitar, piano, and ghostly harmonies collide and coalesce to create a dream-like world where you begin to feel for this “Van Occupanther”. You begin to get the lyrics after a while. This strange and exotic existence which lives and thrives between “Roscoe” and “You Never Arrived” is a musical narrative about a place that never existed and simple characters that never lived, doing simple things and mundane things but lovingly narrated by a Denton, TX band called Midlake.
I’ve heard the phrase “lightning in a bottle” before, but I’ve never felt the need to use it for anything really. But after revisiting Midlake and their magnum opus The Trials of Van Occupanther I’d say it’s a fitting saying for this band. After Van Occupanther the band never reached those heights again. The 2010 follow-up The Courage of Others was a very dour and downtrodden affair that didn’t shine like its predecessor. Soon after Tim Smith left the band due to creative differences. The band continued on with guitarist Eric Pulido taking over singing duties. The 2013 album Antiphon was released in November that year. While a good album in its own right, and Pulido a decent singer, without Smith’s vocals and the baroque quality of his contribution the record didn’t hold any of that old magic.
But that’s okay. We’ve gotta move on sometimes. Leave what’s in the past, in the past. We’ll always have The Trials Of Van Occupanther, and someone named Roscoe.
Now, tempted as I was to put my own observations in brackets occasionally here and there, I haven’t; partly because that would be a bit rude, but mostly because I’d sound like that irritating fool from the Fugees who ruined some perfectly pleasant tracks by going ‘One time’, or indeed, ‘two times’ over the top of them. But for what it’s worth, here’s my twopenn’orth.
There is a warm welcoming quality about The Trials of Van Occupanther, it inhabits an entirely fictional pastoral hinterland that is part early American settler and partly British woodlander – jamming it up somewhere between Willa Cather and Thomas Hardy. When I first bought it I loved the opener ‘Roscoe’ with its ‘Theme From M.A.S.H’ opening chords, perfect harmonies and its air of being the offspring of an ill-advised drunken coupling between America and CSN+Y but was a bit unmoved by the rest of the LP. These days I love it, maybe as my life has accelerated to ludicrous speeds at home and work I’ve needed a gentler method of escapism, where after a hard day’s work as a stonecutter I could just kick back in front of a fire in my woodland cottage. The whole of that nasty twenty-first century receding in the echoes of my acoustic guitar.
Which of course has been the folk rock dream from Traffic through Tull to Fairport to Mac and back again. It’s not a genre that moves me usually but Midlake really do something right here, possibly in terms of finessing the overall mood of the LP. Otherworldly, even, as a wise man once wrote.
A whopping great big PS needs laying down right here as none of this remotely explains the cover image of The Trials of Van Occupanther, I’m plumping for groovy drugs, personally, as an explanation for it. Or maybe Midlake stumbled across a great truth here that humanity can be divided perfectly in twain by which figure the viewer most closely identifies with. Me? I’m definitely more the self-conscious dude on the left with the spray-painted long johns. Fact.
*which is like centuries in blog terms, virtually, like all renaissancey and shit.
**as in ‘steering’, we’re not talking about singing cattle here – although The Musical Steers, is a great band name I intend to use one day, we’ll cover the entirety of a famous LP and call it Exile on Moo Street.