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Midlake - The Trials Of Van Occupanther CD (album) cover



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Honorary Collaborator
3 stars Woodsy indie folk-rock with a slight dark tinge

Midlake is an indie rock band from Denton, Texas around since the late 1990s, with three unique and different studio albums to their name. Their middle album is the forest-friendly folk/art-rock collection 'The Trials of Van Occupanther.' While there is little prog to be found here (their next album would be proggier if that matters to you) this album was quite a surprise when I purchased it in 2006. It channels and celebrates some of the best acoustic rock moments of the 1970s, California rock, folk-rock, bands like America, Pure Prairie League, and Neil Young (especially the album 'After the Gold Rush' which carries a very similar vibe-more on that later). This love of that era is blended with modern sensibilities, and while the band claims a Radiohead influence, I hear a softer, less jammy version of My Morning Jacket personally.

The album is a mixed bag with a drop-dead excellent first half and a second half that doesn't come close to matching it. It starts very strong with the superb, totally accessible alt-country of 'Roscoe' featuring a bludgeoning bass line and nice piano fills in around the edges, with moody themes that conjure thoughts of secretive past days. 'Bandits' and the title track show off the mellow and acoustic side, where multiple warm guitars and amazing vocal harmonies fill out these odes to freedom and woodland fantasy, at least that's what the lyrics mean to me, escape. 'Young Bride' is another stellar highlight. An incredible opening of fiddle music is sideswiped by this colorful drum shuffle that just interrupts it for a most unusual song feel, then the track swoons with more gorgeous melody and great storytelling, really impressive. Several tracks are adorned with flute or keyboards to thicken the guitars. But as mentioned, side two cannot maintain the same level of quality. The second half sounds less inspired and more repetitive, with simpler acoustic numbers which have less surprises and less interesting arrangements. It brings the album down a full star without question. Still, 'Van Occupanther' is a homey and heartfelt collection of songs that should appeal to fans of wistful 70s guitar/harmony rock. It's a great album for a ride in the country or sharing a beer with friends.

Again, if you like the album 'After the Gold Rush' I would definitely recommend this one which shares it spirit. 'Van Occupanther' for me recalls songs like 'Tell Me Why,' 'Till the Morning Comes,' and 'I Believe in You.' If you like that side of Neil, buy this one.

Report this review (#603195)
Posted Wednesday, January 4, 2012 | Review Permalink
3 stars It's great to see Midlake are here on the prog archives. I was very pleased to discover this Texan band upon this album's release. This was their second studio album, and as another reviewer pointed out, there are heavy influences from 1970's American-styled psychedelic folk-rock such as Neil Young and I also feel some Fleetwood Mac among others, especially on the opening track "Roscoe". It's a lush, melodic album and well-constructed with emotional, harmonic vocals sometimes reminding me of Simon and Garfunkel, though at the same time there's still no mistaking their sound for anyone else's. The lyrics are often enchanting bringing up imagery set in woodlands, boats and log cabins; telling some moving tales of pioneering, travel and isolation. It really has the power to take the listener away. 'Bandits' delivers a nice message to reflect on about our possessions. The instrumentation is wonderful, nice work from the flute and acoustics and also analog synthesisers. The first three songs are the strongest, "Head Home" being the best of all. I'll have to agree with Finnforest that the second half of the album isn't quite as strong as the first half, though there are some fine melancholic pieces. I really like "We gathered In Spring" with its glistening 80's sounding keyboards and "It Covers The Hillsides" is really nice too, though the last two pieces sound like bonus tracks. This is a good album in all however, highly recommended to fans of the prog-folk genre.
Report this review (#604533)
Posted Saturday, January 7, 2012 | Review Permalink
Prog-Folk Team
5 stars If the career of a successful band is comprised of a number of breakthroughs in audience acclaim and artistic achievement, then "Trials of Van Occupanther" marks the first breakthrough for this earnest Denton, TX band.

In addition to its transfixing if somewhat opaque story line and uniformity, as opposed to redundancy, of style, "Van Occupanther" represents probably the most convincing album of 1970s influenced art rock recorded by artists too young to remember that decade first hand. The almost non stop emotive melodies pay homage to FLEETWOOD MAC, AMERICA, LOGGINS AND MESSINA, THE EAGLES, and some Brits like DIRE STRAITS, AMAZING BLONDEL (post John Gladwin period) and MAGNA CARTA. No one influence dominates, although the laid back California sound of that period often returns to impart the sensuous shivery awe of a sunny, tranquil west coast day. At the same time, the group has distilled the most enduring aspects of the music of that period, and produced one of the freshest albums of its own decade. I actively dislike most of the EAGLES output, recognize AMERICA's limitations, find MAGNA CARTA a bit boring, enjoy a few LOGGINS and MESSINA songs in small doses, ok I do love FLEETWOOD MAC, but my point is that MIDLAKE concocts an eclectic and more emotionally grounded vision.

On first listens this is just pleasant enough, but it is with every return visit to MIDLAKE's alternate reality that one comes to appreciate the album's ability to transport its audience. Its progressive virtues slowly and shyly reveal themselves in tracks like the stunning "Young Bride", which hints at the band's upcoming subservience to all matters English; "Branches", which shuffles along before tastefully bursting out; "In this Camp" and the plaintive keeper "Bandits". But really, all the material presented here is good or better, ultimately made excellent by the manner in which it is loyally compiled. Yes, even, maybe especially, the FLEETWOOD MAC related indulgences like "Roscoe" and driving beauty "Head Home",

While not matching the immediate impact of the follow up "The Courage of Others", "Trials of Van Occupanther" may ultimately prove more sustaining. Time will tell, but, in the case of "Trials" the verdict is in.

Report this review (#859666)
Posted Thursday, November 15, 2012 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars A brilliant album of quite intricate and subtly constructed songs. A songwriting style that seems common to many Midlake songs is used to great success here: that is the process of slowly adding an assortment of instruments to flit and playfully dance around the lead vocal. Quite remarkable and endearing.

1. Fan favorite "Roscoe" (4:49) is not one of my personal favorites. (8/10)

2. "Bandits" (4:04) is a multi-dimensional, multi-part song that really displays a lust for story telling through the music as well as through the lyric. Quite an intricate display of composition and performance. One of the album's best. (9/10)

3. "Head Home" (5:45) contains some of my favorite vocal arrangements that I've heard in a long time--with quite daring and unexpected changes in direction and melody. (9/10)

4. "Van Occupanther" (3:15) is augmented by some stunningly delightful flute and woodwind play thorough out the song--brilliantly offsetting the flat-toned lead vocal. It's as if the vocal is the foundation and everybody else is dancing playfully around him. Amazing! My favorite song on the album. (10/10)

5. "Young Bride" (4:56) is a brilliant song in the vein of RODDY FRAME/AZTEC CAMERA and ARCADE FIRE. Another favorite. (10/10)

6. "Branches" (5:03) slows things down and gets a little bogged down in the syrup of the lyric & lead vocal. Nice piano work and song shifts. (8/10)

7. "In This Camp" (5:44) sees Tim Smith singing in that FLEET FOXES style upper register. Again nice piano support and subtle incidentals before the song crashes into the eminently cathy chorus melody. (9/10)

8. "We Gathered in Spring" (3:33) sees the band singing in some of the tightest, most even harmonies--CROSBY, STILLS & NASH and AMERICA-like. Beautiful. (9/10)

9. "It Covers the Hillsides" (3:14) is upbeat and bouncy in a MAMAS & THE PAPAS/JOHN SEBASTIAN way. (8/10)

10. "Chasing After Deer" (2:42) is another delicately embellished song--subtle instrumental touches gathering around the solid, beautifully sung lead vocal. (8/10)

11. "You Never Arrived" (1:39) (8/10)

An imaginative display of thoughtful, playful, yet beautifully executed song craftsmanship. 4.5 stars rated up for being so refreshing.

Report this review (#1345788)
Posted Wednesday, January 14, 2015 | Review Permalink

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