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:
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.
*”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.