I was going to call Midlake‘s The Trials of Van Occupanther a modern classic, until it dawned on me that it’s a full fifteen and a half years old. That would have been obvious if I’d stopped to think about it, as the album provided much of the soundtrack while our youngest was bathed, breastfed and brought into this musical household in the autumn of 2006. So classic, yes. Modern, not so much. Sobering as it is, it’s a bit like calling Abbey Road a modern classic in 1985.
You don’t need me to tell you that entire bands come and go in fifteen years. Even Midlake themselves are presently anonymous, on hiatus with the constituent members working on various projects – and nothing disappoints more than bands members ‘working on other projects’ rather than sticking with the band that made so much magic, eh? Never mind, Midlake. We still have The Trials of Van Occupanther. And maybe a new album in ’22 if the rumours are correct?
…Van Occupanther is a phenomenal record, stuffed full of plaintive narratives sung atop rustic, organic instrumentation, the vocal arrangements evoking prime time Laurel Canyon and played by a shit-hot band who’ve clearly spent the months leading up to the record honing and refining every little element of their songs.
It sounds like it could’ve been recorded in the mid 1970s in one of those classic analogue studios, possibly Sound City, possibly Village Recording, with Neil Young next door, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash smoking pot on the swing on the stoop, The Eagles working out a three-part harmony between punch-ups by the Coke machine, but much of the subject matter suggests the roots of the songs date back to the previous century; to rustic, gold rush America, of bandits and bordellos and when bearded trappers worked the land, when everything was handmade and when life in them thar hills was much harder but oh so much simpler.
Stone cutters made them from stones….mountaineers gathered timber piled high… goes opener Roscoe, all fuzzy warmth and chugging chords, a hint of Christine McVie in the into-the-ether chorus, the spectral, chiffony swirl of Stevie Nicks floating around the edges of the harmonies.
Midlake – Roscoe
Nature and hard work, it seems from the off, are the central themes of the record.
While we were out hunting for food they sing between the piano lines and bluesy runs on Bandits, a song about wishing to be robbed of your worldly possessions by bandits so that you can start life over again (with a rabbit and an ox, no less.) Not many bands write such subject matter, and fewer still manage it with melody squeezed richly from every pore, cascading piano and acoustic guitars ringing and sparkling brightly.
Bring me a day full of honest work and a roof that never leaks and I’ll be satisfied they profer on the very Mac-ish Head Home, all throbbing bass, Californian coke haze vocals and a no-note-wasted, tasteful and lightly toasted guitar break before the final chorus – exactly where the Big Book of Classic Rock Guitar Solos suggests you place it. Bonus ’70s points for the weaving Fender-bending interplay in the long drawn-out coda. FM rock reimagined.
Midlake – Head Home
My young bride, why are your shoulders like that of a tired old woman? With a face made for porridge and stew go the opening and closing lines on Young Bride‘s rootsy minor key hoedown, the bass line revving up and down the fretboard as the Appalachian mountain violin does its best creaky door impression. Trivial fact – both Tim Burgess and Paul Weller love, LOVE!, this song.
I saw she was busy, gathering wood for the fire, they sing on the woozy Americana of Branches before the payoff and clincher; We won’t get married, she won’t have me, she wakes up awfully early these days. By the end of the song, the vocals are tumbling over themselves in an overlapping rush of sepia-tinted melancholy, the piano and woodwind providing the requisite sombre arrangement while the drums batter and clatter to a subtle, banjo-enhanced fade out. The equal of anything by the similarly rustic and on-point Fleet Foxes, it’s fantastic stuff. Fleet(wood) Foxes, anyone?
Midlake – Branches
There’s not a note out of place on …Van Occupanther. Delicately plucked Martins ring out, as deftly picked as a McCartney melody then give way to lean, mean, fizzing and spitting guitar solos that are short enough to defy ‘muso’ cries, but are intricate enough that they could sit in the middle of any Abba or Steely Dan or Supertramp up-tempo number from back in the day and not seem at all out of place.
The whole album comes enveloped in an honest, pensive yet placid melancholy, the aural equivalent of one of those Instagram filters that allows you to make a Lana Del Ray video or your phone snap from an Ibizan beach look like a bleached-out Polaroid from half a century ago…exactly the ‘look’ that the band was going for, I’d wager. America was a country forged from hard work, toil, tragedy and overcoming setback. It’s all there in miniature on The Trials of Van Occupanther. A modern classic by anyone’s definition.