If Local Natives have made the last best album of 2009, Midlake‘s third fatigue, out this week it, is probably the first best album of 2010.
The Courage of Other is a startling collection of songs, a band that confirms that the courage is also their. A very inspired work that seems to suffers of just a little bit of monotony in studio but expands and flies high live.
There is a delicate balance that fans and the music industry require from bands follow-ups. They want at the same time artists able to change their sound, not making the best selling album again and again, but also want them to be coherent, recognisable and unique.
Tricky ain’t it?
They write something a bit too audacious and are attacked for not being themselves anymore.
They write something a bit too conservative and are attacked for exploiting the success and hiding lack of ideas.
The first band I can think of, who has paid the highest price for this system are the Strokes.
Their second album, Room on Fire, basically a copycat of landmark Is This It, but still a good album, was received with accusations to live on their previous success. You know those reviews going like “…it sounds as a collection of B-Sides from debut recording sessions…” how many times you read that?
Then they attempted a change in direction with the third album which basically failed both keeping the old fans and getting any new. True, it is a bit self-indulgent on the guitar side and not a masterpiece, still proves the point that balancing identity and creativity is a bloody hard task these days.
Midlake 2004 debut, Bamnan and Slivercork is an album played by a Texan band which was strongly Brit inspired. Where Brit stands mainly for Radiohead.
Derivative enough, too much on the keyboards side of the mixer to be my favourite. Good enough to get signed by Bella Union and noticed by the underground world. It is an album of these times, it has a modern feel, it is set in a urban environment.
The second release, 2006, The Trials of Van Occupanther (one day I’ll do an extensive research on the origin of their titles, promise) definitely didn’t see Midlake following the Strokes’ Room on Fire path.
The Trials of Van Occupanther is set on their homeland, USA. It leaves the modern cities of this millennium and begin a journey. Back in time, around the seventies, and space, towards some sort of wood, grass, river.
It still contains influences from the present and is linked to their debut, mainly by the same synths and keys, but rotates around beautiful melodies buried and forgotten for decades which reread the glorious past of American music.
The lo-fi melancholy that comes out of pieces as Roscoe, Branches, Bandits and the title song is timeless. An album which is already a classics and it becomes a classic for anyone patient enough to give it few listening.
Success means promotion, promotion means endless touring, endless touring means no time to sit down to write and record new songs. Conclusion the third release, The Courage Of Others arrives in 2010. almost 4 years since the previous. Four years that have seen the alt.folk.rock scene getting packed with many bands. All jumping on the “vocal harmonies wagon”, both side of the Atlantic.
Midlake gestation of the new project must have faced the new reality. I can see them discussing on “which next move?”
There are artists following a trend and artists indicating new trends.
Facing the spectre of balancing consistence with change, development and identity, Midlake didn’t embark in a new journey, they kept walking on their path. Further back in time, they got to the middle age, deeper into the woods, now surrounded by the obscure depth of a remote English forest.
I am a strong defender of the theory that does not exist in (any form of) art something that has not been done before. Yet, any good contemporary piece, can be innovative and interesting without being dismissed by “already seen” kind of judgment.
Knowledge, ideas and creativity are the important aspects artists need to possess to not get lost.
Knowledge brought Midlake to use UK music tradition. Back to the seventies and before, into pastoral landscapes so much to have the cover portraying some of them monk-like, organic dressed inhabiting a pre-civilization world.
It’s a mirror image, I wouldn’t go into psychoanalysis to verify if Ian Anderson has visited Tim Smith dreams recently. Definitely he must have replaced Radiohead space on his iPod with Jethro Tull‘s discography.
Jethro Tull good idea was to put together Ian Anderson obsession for a folk bucolic Britain and Martin Barre passion for hard rock. Unfortunately they recorded in the progressive heydays which got them caught into endless, boring suites to need the revolutionary breakthrough of punk to stop that.
Last year Decemberists started Jethro Tull revaluation, taking from their harder-folk sound the inspiration to shape The Hazards of Love.
In a parallel way, Midlake do a similar operation. They preserve the Tull brit-folk tradition getting rid of all the hard, prog divagations that aged so badly.
Beards have grown proportionally with the number of flutes, which are welcomed back on a stage but, instead of playing Bach’s Bourre standing on a leg, that’s circus, they float over a river of bucolic melodies supported by four guitars, that’s music.
The Courage of Others is a brit-folk inspired oeuvre that you dream of Jacqui McShee appearing in some songs.
Compared to their previous works, the thing that emerges listening to the album is the shift from keyboards to guitars. This album often sees 24 strings vibrating together, and the richness that they produce is palpable.
With so much expectation I was excited for this Cambridge date at the cosy Junction2, a lovely venue with the additional value of a brilliant acoustic.
The date is part of Midlake intimate UK tour before the album release. There is nothing that suits better a folky band with a bucolic twist then a small wooden floored venue.
Seven people comes on stage, which are a lot, two more from the previous line-up if I am not wrong.
Four of them play guitars, one plays bass, one drums. There is just one keyboard player, often diverted to the second flute. Tim Smith is full time on vocals and guitar.
With the bass, the strings count sums up to 28 tonight.
The show opens with a trio of new songs, Winter Dies, Children of the Grounds, Small Mountain.
This is commitment, promotion, self-confidence and desire of playing the new stuff at its peak. They deliver. A combo of flutes take the audience by hand into the shadows of the wood. The guitars gallop you out on a horse ride that end in front of a fire where the sweet & sad voice of Tim Smith delights the fans with a step back. The Trials of Van Occupanther.
It’s time for Roscoe and it’s time to remember that contemporary music has its classics too. Shivers. Nothing more to add.
Five more new songs in a row.
Rulers, Ruling All Things, Core of Nature and The Horn make me wish the first of February is tomorrow (it was not) to get buy a copy of the CD as the shops open.
Then Acts of a Man, the 500 vinyl only released single, and the Courage of Others make everyone understand that this tour is an album launch event. Eric Nichelson is surprised by people already knowing the songs and jokes with the idea that no one should know the songs, which is clearly not the case. I was one of the few not knowing them and I was loving every minute of the disclosure.
Now that I finally listened to the CD, I can confirm that live the new songs get some points over the studio versions. They feel free to fly, wander over people’s heads instead of suffering the constriction of the CD binary bits which makes it a bit monotone.
Bandits and Young Brides are two step back at The Trials of Van Occupanther times and the occasion to show off the skill of the electric guitarist. He stood behind a mic pole for the entire gig who made almost impossible for me to snap him, but his Les Paul delivered one of the most delightful guitar playing I have heard since Band of Horses played Koko.
Fortune, beautiful, and Bring Down set the counter of The Courage of Others songlist to 10 out of 11 leaving out only the closing track of the album, In the Ground.
A wonderful version of Head Home closes the main set and a breathtaking interpretation of Branches, my favourite Midlake track, opens the encore and ends the gig. The guitar flies outside the Junction and beyond this planet. It breathes a different air and leaves everyone breathless.
Midlake have not played any songs from the debut album tonight. The journey back to the past, back to the origin of folk music is opposite to the journey of their music started in the present.
These guys must know a place close somewhere in Texas where time is as immortal as the songs but, you know, everything changes. We will be here to see what they’ll be offering next.
I have talked already of no-pit venues, but it’s a vast topic which has plenty of tips and tricks to reveal.
Let’s see it from a different perspective, what to bring?
Assuming you know before you leave home that you will not have a pit, usually is not difficult to guess, best is to keep yourself light. If it is winter consider living your coats at the cloakroom (if you are English you can leave them at home and get out in the chill with a T-shirt!).
The first problem is getting to the front with the bulky stuff. Get there early helps, so don’t get another drink, go to the stage when is empty-ish.
Once there you have a second, bigger problem. You can’t move and if you can, you will piss off some fans. Third, you don’t have space to operate, change lens or camera.
But, being your spot limited, you want to use different lenses to vary the angle and the perspective and avoiding to shoot the same picture all night.
Sum all this together, (no don’t go back home!) and it’s easy to conclude that a single body and a extended zoom is the ideal combination.
Which zoom depend on at least four factors. How rich you are, how good to get to the front, your style and how much light there is.
A “classic” wide angle – medium telephoto as a 24-70 f2.8 would be your lens of choice. Consider a longer one if you are likely to be further away or you prefer close-ups.
If optics wasn’t science, something like 18-200 f2.8 would be perfect, but not being possible to design that guy, you have to compromise.
It goes without saying I was there with two 35mm bodies, heavy 5 primes, I pissed off fans and struggled to get the right frame at the right moment, always changing lenses in a rush.