Tag Archives: Antiphon

Roscoe/Head Home – Midlake

Here’s a new piece on a song and band that I originally wrote about on this blog soon after I started it. It’s a horrendously bad piece of writing that still gets traffic, so I’m taking it down and replacing it with this.

Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occupanther is an unassuming record – a blend of folk rock and West Coast FM pop with lyrics from the perspective of some rustic 19th-century homesteader, played by a group that had started life as a jazz band, and sung by Tim Smith in a voice that strongly recalls Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. It was released to middling reviews, with most of the positive notices coming from smaller review websites; Pitchfork, by contrast, gave it a slightly bemused 6.8 out of 10, wondering why a band that had previously dealt in “synth-age psychedelia” had retreated to mid-seventies semi-acoustic rock, while Robert Christgau named it “Dud of the Month” in his MSN column.*

But Van Occupanther connected hard with its audience. It seemed to me then, and still seems now, that it was one of the big three indie rock records of that period, along with Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut and For Emma, Forever Ago, the first Bon Iver full-length from Justin Vernon. All three shared an aesthetic in which men were men, living in self-sufficient isolation in wooden cabins, thinking big thoughts and hunting for their food.** All three began to influence indie and unsigned musicians immediately.

Frankly, I had some reservations about the cosplay aspects of what these guys (and they were all guys) were all up to, and I found myself unable to warm to Fleet Foxes and For Emma, Forever Ago, not liking Vernon’s Auto-Tuned, multi-tracked falsetto, and feeling that Pecknold had constructed an impressive sound but forgotten to write any actual songs. Midlake, though, were a different matter. Yes, Tim Smith’s lyrics may occasionally have seemed like a way of avoiding having to write about the contemporary world, but the band – jazz players originally – was hot as hell, and Smith and second guitarist/vocalist Eric Pulido harmonised expertly.

Even better, The Trials of Van Occupanther included a couple of absolutely killer singles in Roscoe and Head Home.

Roscoe emerged first, a minor-key chug over which Smith builds the world of Van Occupanther while lamenting not having been born with a “more productive name like Roscoe”***. Filling the song with references to mountaineers, stonecutters, building houses and fixing roofs, and fixating on the idea of village as community, implying a contrast with an atomised, corrupted present day, Smith finally lands on what amounts to a thesis statement for the whole album:

1891
They roamed around and foraged
They made their house from cedars
They made their house from stone.
Oh, they’re a little like you
They’re a little like me
We have all we need

So yeah, perhaps Midlake did set us on the road to Marcus Mumford playing stadium indie while dressed as a 19th-century frontiersman. But what makes Roscoe work is the playing of the band, which combined precision and bite (drummer McKenzie Smith is crucial in this regard: he switches frequently between hats and ride to propel the song while preventing monotony as we wait for the chorus, and his quick-handed fills avoid rock cliche), the unexpected tributaries of Smith’s vocal melodies, which is instantly accessible but surprising, not quite doing what you think it’s going to, and the harmonies of Smith and Pulido, which are astutely arranged and executed.

Roscoe continues to be Van Occupanther‘s signature song, but as a huge Fleetwood Mac fan in the midst of his most intense period of Fleetwood Mac fandom, Head Home was my immediate favourite, and on balance probably remains so, even while I can see why people went crazier over Roscoe.

Head Home is the song where those FM comparisons are most justified. It has all of the Rumours-era ingredients: the Mick Fleetwood bass-drum groove, a gnarled Lindsey Buckingham-esque solo from Eric Nichelson and super-tight harmonies from Smith and Pulido (the falsetto harmony from, I think, Smith does a creditable job of recreating a Christine McVie part above the Buckingham and Nicks vocal lines). But it’s not a slavish imitation. It’s taken at a brisker clip than you’ll usually hear from the steadily mid-tempo Mac, which along with more of McKenzie Smith’s dextrous, jazz-trained fills gives it a slightly panicky, nervous energy, and it’s filled with Tim Smith’s usual lyrical preoccupations. However naively romantic and, it has to be said, juvenile a sentiment like “Bring me a day full of honest work and nd a roof that never leaks, I’ll be satisfied” may be, it’s not something you’d get from a Stevie or Lindsey song. It’s far more akin to Robbie Robertson’s writing on Cahoots, when his idealised vision of America between Reconstruction and Great Depression became a fetish.

Its somewhat gauche lyric aside, Head Home is a thrilling six minutes because of the quality of the performances, both vocal and instrumental, and the cumulative effect of those harmonies rising above Nichelson’s surprisingly tough electric guitar during the long coda.**** Nowhere else in the Midlake canon did the band manage quite the same combination of power, melody and sophisticated vocal arrangement. It’s quite glorious.

Four years after Van Occupanther, Midlake released The Courage of Others, the band’s last album with Tim Smith as the lead singer and main songwriter. It was a more subdued affair than its predecesor, more in thrall to early-seventies British folk rock (Fairport’s Fotheringay casts a long shadow over first single and album opener Acts of Man) than anything that came out of Laurel Canyon later in the decade. While not containing anything as immediate as Roscoe and Head Home, I think The Courage of Others is probably Midlake’s finest moment – it’s more consistent than Van Occupanther in style and quality, and without the second-half drop-off that hobbles the earlier record.

After Tim Smith left the band, Eric Pulido took over on lead vocals and Midlake followed a more democratic model on 2013’s Antiphon. Its bigger, rhythm-section led sound retained some of the 1970s prog influences evident on The Courage of Others, but while the sound was perhaps less derivative of its influences than had previously been the case with Midlake (it’s harder to play spot-the-influence with Antiphon), it lacked any songs of the quality of Roscoe or Head Home, and seemed to come and go without having much of an impact.

The group haven’t, as far as I’m aware, formally disbanded, but Pulido did release a solo record under the name E.B. The Younger, which suggests we may not hear from them again. Tim Smith shared a demo for his Harp project on his website, which is very much in the vein of his Courage of Others material, but so far no finished music has emerged. The Trials of Van Occupanther and The Courage of Others deserve a revisit if you’ve not listened to them since their release. They hold up well.

Midlake circa The Trials of Van Occupanther

*”The prestige of this conjunction of pomo prog, alt-country, fantasy fiction and video-game narrativity is the silliest proof yet of how jaded indie’s tastebuds have become,” wrote Christgau.

**Vernon was the partial exception in that, while his lyrics were opaque (and incomprehensible to me at least without seeing them written down), he literally did the things Tim Smith and Robin Pecknold only sang about, recording his debut while living in his father’s hunting cabin, eating venison from deer he’d killed himself.

***Speaking as a Ross who has frequently been nicknamed “Roscoe”, I can assure Smith it’s not a more productive name than Tim.

****I saw Midlake in Oxford during their 2010 tour, with John Grant and Grandaddy’s Jason Lyttle supporting, and can attest that live they could work up quite a head of steam, as well as pulling off those vocals flawlessly.

To Each His Own – E.B. The Younger

To Each His Own is the debut solo record by Eric Pulido, guitarist and vocalist from Midlake, recorded under the name E.B. The Younger.

Midlake never settled on a sound. Every record the Denton, Texas, band have made has reflected their then-current interests and influences, often in such an unguarded way that to have accused them of being derivative would have seemed merely churlish. There was a naivity in the way they appropriated sounds and moods and atmospheres from other acts – the Thom Yorke quasi-falsetto of original vocalist Tim Smith, the Grandaddy-isms of Bamnan and Slivercork, the Fleetwood Mac harmonies of the group’s Van Occupanther era, the stark and austere Sandy Denny-style chord changes that are all over The Courage of Others – that stopped it feeling cynical. It just felt like they were sharing their enthusiasms with you.

To Each His Own takes this tendency to an extreme, not settling on a sound for more than one song at a time. It shares with much of current indie a backwards-looking focus, but the object of Pulido’s retrospection changes every few minutes. On lead single Used to Be, for example, the guitar sounds and synth chords make it sound like a forgotten mid-1980s Don Henley single. CLP calls to mind Paul Simon’s St Judy’s Comet. The lovely Down and Out, with its sighing major seventh chords, sounds like Lindsey Buckingham in his Law and Order phase covering an old Neil Young song. Don’t Forget Me would have fit nicely on Nilsson Schmilsson. The title track that closes the album gets really meta; it sounds like Tim Smith-era Midlake.

To Each His Own goes down easy on a musical level. It’s beautifully played (it features the talents of Midlake guitarist Joey McClellan and drummer Mackenzie Smith, as well as members of the Texas Gentlemen) and arranged, and Pulido is an appealing singer. Its best songs (my pick is Down and Out) are well worth your time, whether or not you have ever liked any of Midlake’s work in the past – this is substantially different stuff to anything Midlake have done up to now.

While Pulido does a fine job of recreating the sonic signifiers (lightly strummed acoustic guitars, damped drums, tight vocal harmonies, a range of acoustic and electric keyboard tones, and even synths) of 1970s and early 1980s soft rock, he sometimes struggles to find a lyrical mode that suits the compositions while living up to his influences. “If it’s wrong I don’t want to be right” is the kind of banal comment that Rupert Holmes would have congratulated himself for writing, yet it’s the key hook of On an Island. When the Time Comes muses on the point of getting a record deal when “ramen only costs a dime”, and rhymes “Got no regrets I care to mention” with “Can you direct me to my pension?” – which goes to prove I suppose that writing witty, lightly ironic lyrics of the kind Nilsson, Warren Zevon or Paul Simon sprinkled throughout their songs is harder than it looks.

But then, Pulido struggled at times on the last Midlake album, Antiphon, to write in Tim Smith’s antiquated, rustic idiom, too. He’s a talent. A listen to Monterey, Down and Out or Don’t Forget Me makes that pretty clear. How much you get from To Each His Own may depend on whether you pay particular attention to lyrics or not, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet. If he finds the lyrical mode that best suits him, he could make something special.

Midlake @ the Shepherd’s Bush Empire – review

Yesterday I took a break from playing music to go with Mel and watch some music: Midlake at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, supported by Horse Thief and Charlie Bowdery.

Bowdery was on first and, while impressive for a performer and writer of his age (he’s 15), he did not strike me as being ready for national exposure of the kind he must be getting, and one wonders whether his needs (as an artist or a young man) are really being best served by his being asked to play in front of large, uninterested, basically empty rooms. Would he not be better advised to work as hard as he can on his writing for the next two or three years while playing in smaller, intimate venue, and come back to the big stage when he’s learned his craft a little bit? If he were ready as a writer, maybe it’d be fine to throw him in there. But as it is, best of luck to him.

Oklahoma’s Horse Thief were the main support act. A psychedelic folk band (my goodness, there’s a lot of those around now) formed in Midlake’s home town of Denton, Texas, but currently based in Oklahoma City, Horse Thief are, like Midlake, signed to Bella Union. Again, the surprise…

They clearly had a few fans in the crowd last night, but Mel and I were not among them. They have a sound worked out, for sure, but song after song passed without a single snippet of melody you could take away with you afterwards. While they would no doubt offer as a counter to this that their music is about feel, offering them platforms on which they can get on with the business of just being Horse Thief, none of them are interesting enough players to justify distending the songs and jamming on them. The singer’s voice too, is an acquired taste. Close your eyes and you could be listening to Billy Corgan. Full marks to the guitarist for his Wilko Johnson-style head movements, though (forward and back, as opposed to the Thom Yorke/Kristin Hersh side to side). Very cool and I was rather jealous.

The contrast with Midlake was stark. Midlake formed at university as a jazz band, and more than in the past those roots are evident, both on their new album, Antiphon, and particularly on stage. When I saw them a few years ago in Oxford, they were stunningly good, but there was a reined-in quality to their performance, which judging from last night may have been the influence of now-departed singer-songwriter Tim Smith, who didn’t crack a smile at all that night and seemed a rather joyless presence, for all that he was key to their sound then.

Antiphon is the most honest representation of the band as a whole, as opposed to one person’s vision that we were trying to facilitate” – Eric Pulido

In interviews since his departure, co-guitarist and former harmony singer Eric Pulido (who’s taken over from Smith as frontman) has suggested that Midlake weren’t a hugely happy crew during that tour. That’s only one guy’s side of the story – and as I said, they played wonderfully regardless – but last night they were clearly off the leash. Drummer McKenzie Smith was in fine form, his enthusiastic fills betraying his jazz roots – there were hints of Harvey Mason in his fills (now much more frequent), and the tom-heavy beats of the Antiphon tracks suggest a possible influence from Can’s Jaki Liebezeit.

The old songs naturally enough drew most of the loudest appreciation of the evening, and Van Occupanther was revisited more frequently than The Courage of Others (Small Mountain and Children of the Grounds getting an airing and nothing else, unless I missed it). Which makes sense – in retrospect, Courage sounds like one road they could have gone down after Van Occupanther, and Antiphon another. But the crowd seemed to enjoy the newer songs too, which the band attacked far harder than in the past.

Pulido sung well, but his voice was unfortunately buried in a very murky mix, which foregrounded the low end of the bass guitar and drums at the expense of the vocals and snare, which lacked punch and, surprisingly, volume – McKenzie Smith is a light-hitting, unmatched-grip player, and brute volume of the backbeat isn’t a hallmark of his playing, but neither is a thunderous kick drum, and he certainly had that yesterday, so the drum balance that we heard was not coming from his playing. Perhaps it was a democratic decision by the band to sound this way live – ‘We’re a band now, not a singer-songwriter with backing musicians, so the vocals are just part of the sound.’ But the voices were notably lower in the mix than on the new record, and there didn’t seem much need for it to be that way.* The mix did gain a little in clarity and focus as the songs rolled by, but it did somewhat mar my enjoyment of the gig (yeah, I’m one of those people now apparently).

Still, they remain a great live band and I was happy to see them. And happy for them that the biggest cheers of the night came after a stomping performance of The Old and the Young, rather than from an older song like Roscoe or Head Home. It got the crowd moving and singing along way more than any other song last night, which is nice for Midlake 2.0. When you think about it, some of the biggest bands in the world (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac) have survived the departures of key singing/aongwriting members. There seems no reason why Midlake can’t carry on in this line-up for as long as they choose.

 

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*I’ve done enough live sound to know it’s a thankless task, and a difficult one, so I don’t want to pile in on the crew last night. I get it. All kinds of things can be going on that are totally not your fault – but everyone and their brother will have an opinion on what you’re doing wrong and hold you responsible.

Favourite anecdote/worst scenario from my CV: very busy one-day festival in Southend a few years back. 5-minute changeovers between sets. No house drum kit. A lot of acoustic instruments to mike up. The kind of day that runs you to exhaustion and makes you hate everyone. One of the bands’ lead guitarist (playing a DI’d acoustic for a certain song) is saying over the mike that his guitar’s not working, leading everyone to look in my direction and start muttering. Once I made it through the crowd to the stage, I found that the clumsy clod had stood on his cable and pulled it out of the DI box. Yeah, it’s the things you can’t control that’ll kill you.