In 2006, Van Occupanther was hailed as an instant classic and over the course of the next year proved to be the band’s commercial breakthrough. While their debut, 2004’s Bamnan and Slivercork, had drawn acclaim alongside comparisons to Grandaddy and Radiohead, Midlake looked further afield and deeper within for the follow-up. Suffused with a romantic yearning for the simpler life progress leaves behind, this was a record pitched between 1871, 1971 and somewhere out of time: between Henry David Thoreau and Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, between 1970s Laurel Canyon thinking and a longing for something more mysterious. Rich reserves of wistful melody, dreamy horns, rolling guitars and plaintive pianos reflect its elusive, idiosyncratic narratives: a couple long to be robbed by bandits so they can start anew, an outcast scientist ponders his pariah status, a woman chases a frisky deer, a river leads who knows where yet leaves you little choice but to follow…
Formed in the small town of Denton, with roots in the University of North Texas College of Music, Midlake attracted an early follower in Simon Raymonde, Bella Union Records owner and former Cocteau Twin. Raymonde fell in love with the band, and together they cultivated a relationship built on sharing Midlake’s music with the world. After the band’s debut became a favourite for many critics and fans, Midlake nurtured the desire to accomplish something even more unique. As Tim Smith, singer/songwriter for Midlake, said back then: “Compared to Bamnan and Slivercork, this album uses less keyboards in favour of acoustic guitar, piano, more vocals and electric guitar. The sound is something more related to ’70s folk-rock but not in a gimmicky way, hopefully. I have a great affinity for those bands from the ’70s, the music just seems to move me more. So when writing this album, of course those sounds came out in the music.”
Over 2006, audiences soon realised there was nothing “gimmicky” at work here. Famous admirers included Thom Yorke, Beck, The Flaming Lips, Paul Weller, James Dean Bradfield, St Vincent, actor/skateboarder Jason Lee and The Chemical Brothers; the latter gave Smith the vocal slot on “The Pills Won’t Help You Now”, the sadly stoical highlight from their 2007 album, We Are the Night. After Midlake’s 2006 touring schedule took them to an ever-growing fanbase, the music press awarded Van Occupanther high placings in end-of-year polls. Since then, their influence has perhaps been felt in the breakthrough of many a band or singer at one with the stuff of beards, bucolic yearning and blissful West Coast harmonies, from Fleet Foxes to Band of Horses, The Low Anthem, Jonathan Wilson, Matthew E White and beyond.
Not that Midlake stood still to lap up the praise: a band acutely attuned to nature’s shifts, they embraced change. In 2010, they ventured into darker psych-folk thickets for The Courage of Others and backed John Grant on his lustrously spiky breakthrough album, Queen of Denmark. When Tim Smith departed Midlake afterwards, guitarist/singer Eric Pulido stepped up to the lead vocal role for 2013’s freshly exploratory Antiphon. Since then, Pulido and various Midlake members have embarked on a new musical project with a cast of all-stars, including members of Grandaddy, Franz Ferdinand, Band of Horses and Travis.
All of this serves to reminds us what fertile seeds were sown with The Trials of Van Occupanther: a modern classic, made of vintage craft and timeless magic.
Critical acclaim for Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occupanther…
“The songwriting is rich, delivering an almost hallucinatory mix of pianos, horns, guitars and painfully wistful reminisces… One of 2006's best.” The Guardian – 4 Stars ****
“This unimpeachable record is a part-pastoral, part-rock curiosity, with trace elements of Neil Young, America and Grandaddy. All exquisitely sung and played, and as with Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise, we’re dealing with an invigorating, many-faceted work of diverse instrumentation and durability.”
MOJO – 4 Stars ****
“The full-cream harmonies recall CSNY in their early pomp… Much of it sounds like the spiritual cousin of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and Harvest, sharing the same back-to-nature rusticity.”
Uncut – 4 Stars ****
“Midlake seek to uncover the spiritual magic hidden beneath the veneer of everyday life… Singer-songwriter Tim Smith imbues his songs with a beguiling mystery. The results recall the genial eccentricity of Van Dyke Parks” The Independent – 4 Stars ****
“The Trials of Van Occupanther is a bona fide classic, a record that unites Mercury Rev-styled psyche eccentricity with smooth rock'n'soul. Out on the ever-inspiring Bella Union, its very existence makes the world seem a better place”. NME – 8/10
released March 2, 2017
all rights reserved