A meadow. Sheep. A wild-eyed man with torn britches playing the flute whilst standing on one leg. All of those images occurred to me when I listened to the new Midlake album, The Courage of Others. Nearly four years removed from their acclaimed album The Trials of Van Occupanther, the Denton, Tx. band is back with another set of lilting, pastoral, and yes, spooky Americana.
It’s not that the lyrics are particularly dark, in fact songwriter Tim Smith references the end of a long winter and the arrival of spring on more than one occasion. I readily admit that I really don’t know what he’s on about for the most part, and I’m not really sure that it matters. Smith writes abstract lyrics that are rooted in the earth and the seasons, presenting a series of images in lieu of a coherent narrative.
The music is informed by the same sources that inspire current American artists like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, and their British predecessors Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. And by the way, Smith has no problem with the Jethro Tull comparison. Originally a sax player, he has increased his flute playing on this album because he doesn’t think that saxophone fits the Midlake sound. Eric Nichelson, who to this point has been splitting his time between guitar and keyboards, has dropped the keys to focus on the folk sound created by the guitars.
It’s not all pastoral British landscapes though. Smith takes his inspiration for “Small Mountain” from his parents old place in the Texas hill country. “Winter Dies” uses a lyric from ’70s artist Jimmie Spheeris who recorded Smith’s favorite album, the cult classic Isle of View.
The Courage of Others is clearly a carefully made, and deeply felt album. In the late afternoon on a gray and cold winter day, it seems to be just right. It’s not music that you would turn to as you’re getting ready to go out on a Saturday night. Sunday morning, on the other hand, is a different story. The album is rooted deeply in ancient folk traditions, with just enough drums and electric guitar to keep it in the contemporary realm. It goes down easy, but with plenty of substance to stay with you after the last song has ended.