Is it a concept album? Is it a rock opera? It doesn't matter because ultimately this is one of the best albums of 2006.
The Denton, Texas five-piece Midlake did pretty well for themselves with their 2004 debut Bamnan and Silvercork. While no one would label that record brilliant, or even fully realized, it did have enough vision and scope for critics to group Midlake with some pretty good company that included The Flaming Lips, Grandaddy, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Mercury Rev. The common refrain in most reviews of Bamnan and Silvercork centered around "psychedelic" and "quirky" and the easy line that could be drawn from those words to the band's associated influences. Midlake does a lot with The Trials of Van Occupanther, but perhaps the most notable accomplishment is the ease with which they have graciously acknowledged those influences while simultaneously telling them to eat their musical dust.
The Trials of Van Occupanther is such a nuanced, finely layered work that Midlake has certainly crafted one of the best releases of 2006. The bnd has packed much sonic punch into the album's 11 songs by using a variety of strings, keyboards, woodwinds, guitars, piano, and percussion. It's the kind of ambitious music that recalls the finer moments of the classic rock canon. I'm talking about songs that both evoke and at times equal everything from Neil Young to Fleetwood Mac to Jethro Tull to ELO to Dire Straits. That may be some pretty heavy company for a young band to be compared to, but a couple of listens to the album will make you a believer.
While The Trials of Van Occupanther is intended to be a concept album about a fictional character's trials and tribulations, it isn't very hard to place the emotional content in the songs as barely disguised declarations of the group's -- and singer/songwriter Tim Smith's -- own internal life. Still there's a certain ballsy-ness, if not nobility, in crafting a concept album so musically engaging.
The actual story of Van Occupanther may be more obscurant than overt or literary, but the music is so perfect it's impossible to hold the narrative shortcomings against Smith and the rest of the band. The Trials of Van Occupanther is a character piece set a few hundred years ago. The story has the whiff of a British nobleman in colonial Africa, though it could just as well be about a lonely coal miner in 1891 Appalachia. Honestly, it really doesn't matter, and I won't spend a lot of time dissecting the narrative the band has put together. The individual songs steal the show; a cohesive narrative from beginning to end seems less than important. Besides, it gives the band something to strive for on their next record.
Two songs from The Trials of Van Occupanther are currently making the Internet rounds. The lead track "Roscoe", which the bands' press notes say has been downloaded close to 100,000 times, and "Young Bride" are the most indie rock-friendly tracks on the album. But patience and a few listens will reveal gleaming gems that rock circles around Snow Patrol and Arctic Monkeys.
"Head Home" is blessed with the kind of melody and soaring harmony that would make it at home on late '70s Top 40 radio (and that's a compliment) while still sounding vital today. Smith uses his weary warble to full effect on "Head Home" as he acknowledges that "there's someone I'd like to see, she never mentions a word to me" before bowing his head and sadly singing, "I think I'll head home." The chorus slides easily into a brief squall of a guitar solo that sounds like frustration translated into music. It's a crafty, well-written moment in an excellent song.
"Branches" is a melancholy tale of unrequited love anchored by a gentle piano that soars with power ballad bravado at the line, "We won't get married because she won't have me." The muscular chorus fades into a quiet refrain of, "It's hard for me, but I'm trying." As is the case with many of the tunes here, Midlake excels at carefully adorning their songs with just enough extras -- a synth here, a piano there, a string section peeking through -- to make the songs extraordinary.
There must be something in the water down in Denton, Texas. In addition to Centro-matic and The Baptist Generals, we can now add Midlake to the city's roster of impressive bands. With The Trials of Van Occupanther, Midlake moves immediately to the front of the pack.
Midlake - Young Bride