Midlake the courage of others (Bella Union)
The velvet underground had Andy Warhol. U2's most recent album took a cue from the work of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. Countless other bands have been inspired by the Brit Art pack: Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Billy Childish- founded Stuckist Movement.
Texan mavericks Midlake are infinitely less predictable. Or fashionable. For their new album's sense of bleak beauty and joyous austerity, they set out to capture an atmosphere suggested by the works of Bruegel, the 16th-century Flemish painter. My, but we've come a long way from Heartbreak Hotel.
It's three years since Midlake caused a stir with their intriguing 70s soft-rock influenced The Trials of Van Occupanther. Quietly audacious, Midlake pressed the easy-listening groove of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles into the service of songs that created a mysterious tableaux spookily imagined by a 19th century hermit living in the American wilderness.
It was low-key stuff but oddly affecting nonetheless. That album might have remained one of rock's beloved minor curiosities were it not for the quantum leap that is the eleven-track The Courage of Others.
From Denton in Texas, Midlake's background and early aspirations were jazz, which later became shaped by Radiohead and some gentle psychedelic electronica.
As they toured the last album, Midlake found themselves listening to a lot of early English folk-rock. Soon, their fixation with Jethro Tull began to find expression in new songs.
The Courage of Others is neither pastiche nor tribute. It's a carefully modulated thematic collection that creates its own unique stamp on the imagination.
The musical template is even softer. More acoustic guitars and flute. The drums rolling around with prog-rock aplomb. The vocals are never strident. Indeed, Tim Smith often sounds as if he's singing medieval madrigals. The effect is refreshing.
The Courage of Others chimes perfectly with the world's current apocalyptic vogue -- earthquakes, McCarthy's The Road and western governments' terrorism threat levels rising from "substantial" to "severe".
The album opens with chiming acoustic guitars before drums begin slapping around. Smith's voice drones hypnotically: "When the acts of men cause the ground to break open, oh let me inside...".
Winter Dies is a good example of how the band use electric guitars sparingly to embellish the acoustic interplay that's the main course.
The band are wary of people thinking they're wanting to sound like an early English folk-rock band. "You see a lot of bands that probably have comparable influences that sound a little different than us," says guitarist Eric Pulido. "It's all about how you interpret those."
It's fun attempting to interpret the quintet's plaintiff cameos. "I only want to be left to my own ways," bleats Smith, a man who has "been cruel and kind", on Rulers, Ruling All Things.
Elsewhere, things sound weird. Like on Children of the Ground, for example. The rhythm might be the most upbeat, loping along like Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. But the vista evoked is disturbing: "We were raised in a town where they jump on your back like children and leave an imprint on your shoulderblades..."
The Horn is driven by an atypical grunge guitar and a busier rhythm section.
Midlake's familiar agrarian concerns, their studied melancholia, their premonitions of catastrophe and descriptions of nature struggling against the odds, remain in place. But a heightened musicality and a noirish narrative makes this their finest work to date. HHHII
Midlake play Vicar Street on February 14th