Midlake is from Denton, Texas, the same smallish town that spawned Centro-matic, but you’d never guess it by listening to The Trials of Van Occupanther. With its soft and inviting beds of acoustic guitar, piano, and woodwinds, the quintet’s second album is considerably less blippy than its predecessor, Bamnan and Slivercork, but it remains painfully British. Singer/songwriter Tim Smith, who also plays piano, guitar, and (gulp) flute, sounds a lot like Thom Yorke (he doesn’t affect an English accent, thank goodness, but his intonation is suspiciously plummy), and his lyrics read as if he might have spent his formative years locked in a pantry with the complete works of Thomas Hardy. References to stonecutters, villages, harvests, porridge, foxes, willows, and the sea abound. The titular protagonist travels by boat, drinks tea in camps, lugs buckets of water around, worries about his leaking roof (thatch, no doubt), and pines for a girl who cuts her own firewood.
It’s all very quaint and agrarian, practically reeking of ale and burlap and chimney smoke, and, as someone who’s read Jude the Obscure three times, I really ought to dig it more. I get that it’s a concept album about a 19th-century hermit who struggles with feelings of anomie, and God knows I can relate (see above); what I can’t accept is the unmitigated crappiness of the lyrics, which aim for mystery and settle, with a resounding thud, on obtuseness. In the person of Van Occupanther, Smith feels free to string together a bunch of non sequiturs, leaving what he probably considers evocative gaps in the narrative. “Bandits” contains the lines “While we were out hunting for food/Our house was being robbed/I caught an apple and she caught a fox/So I caught a rabbit but she caught an ox.” Come again? In “Branches,” Smith sings, “We won’t get married/’Cause she won’t have me/She wakes up awfully early these days/There’s no one else so kind/There’s no one else to find/It’s hard for me but I’m trying.” As the always-insightful Gabby Van Slander remarked in a recent installment of Brenda Starr, “Boring people always act secretive — it’s how they make themselves seem interesting.”
But the fact remains that many people — including skateboarder-turned-TV star-turned-unpaid publicist Jason Lee, former Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde (who signed Midlake to his label, Bella Union), and touring partners the Flaming Lips — do find Midlake interesting. It’s also true that Smith and his four bandmates, versatile multiinstrumentalists all, are competent, even inspired, when it comes to crafting soaring tunes and sumptuous arrangements. If “Roscoe” brings to mind an iPod-age Jethro Tull, if “Head Home” sounds like a proggier Coldplay, at least both songs are the work of real musicians, people who learned how to play their instruments before starting a band and can probably even sight-read. If “In This Camp” sounds like an outtake from Pablo Honey, at least it’s derivative of a great album — and given that Radiohead will never make that album again, Midlake might as well do it.
Van Occupanther is chockablock with appealing sonic details. “Young Bride” has lockstep drums and a really cool violin part that’s offset by a funny synth squiggle; “Bandits” gussies up a nice midsize-arena rocker with pretty finger-picked guitar, organ, piano, and flute. There’s none of that schleppy faux-naïve amateurism that’s so pervasive these days, and it’s refreshing to encounter indie-rock musicians whose abilities match their ambitions. But just because the album isn’t awful doesn’t make it great. Frankly, it isn’t good enough to be awful, because “awful” implies the possibility of awe, which is not something that Van Occupanther inspires.