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What I’m listening to this week: Midlake

July 14, 2009

The Trials of Van Occupanther – 2006

And now, the album most likely to soundtrack a remake of Oregon Trail: The MovieThe Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake!  Well, as long as the characters are still named Jerk and Idiot, I’d see it…

Anyway, I’m only half-joking.  The Trials of Van Occupanther is like a playback of soft rock supergroups from the 1970s (like America), sort of in the same vein as the Fleet Foxes, only Midlake sets out to do it true to form. They wrote an album in the most literal sense of the word…there aren’t separate singles to be found.  The Oregon Trail bit comes in because each song actually has specific lyrical references to different aspects of pioneer life.  Van Occupanther is also rich with spine-chilling harmonies which are laid in a groundwork of gently composed music that is intricate while remaining firmly a backing piece to the vocals.  It’s definitely on the mellow side of soft rock, and while it succeeds greatly as an heir to that 1970s musical throne, it’s not a perfect album.  That hardly matters because the songs on the first half of the album do an amazing job of calling up the images Midlake writes about and the singing is so polished.

The Trials of Van Occupanther begins with the most up-tempo song on the album, “Roscoe”, and is particularly full of Trail-evoking lyrics like these: “The mountaineers gathered tender/Piled high/In which to take along/Driving many miles, knowing they’d get here” (and also some Knights Templar references).   It’s clever and thoughtful without taking itself way too seriously.  The next track, “Bandits”, has a pastoral feel with the gently rolling music and low key vocal delivery.  “Head Home” starts with an interesting, albeit outdated, synth sound, but soon evolves into a piano-driven tune that features perhaps the most glorious ringing of bed and home ever captured in song.

Other noteworthy songs on the album are “Young Bride”, a more introspective look at the rough life Midlake idealizes here and “In This Camp”.  “Young Bride” has a more unique drum beat than other tracks and a mournful fiddle solo.  I like “In This Camp” if only because it has the hands-down best vocal harmony section on The Trials of Van Occupanther and really is very soundtrack worthy.

A couple of songs that Midlake doesn’t pull off quite as well are the title track, “Van Occupanther”, which is a bit too sleepy, and even though it gets its melancholic point across, the combination of the vacant vocals and the somewhat bland music kind of lulls your eyes closed.  “We Gathered in Spring” and “It Covers the Hillsides” showcase the possible negatives of doing a 70s inspired album with their really cheesy synths, but the lyrics make them listenable anyway.  And, to Midlake’s credit, that is not something to which every band could attest.

The Trials of Van Occupanther is a cool album to listen to, perfect for a long road trip (maybe at the beginning of the day though!).  Overall, it’s solid and has a few flaws, but also has more than enough positives to compensate for them.

One Comment leave one →
  1. seanningham permalink*
    July 16, 2009 4:19 pm

    This wins my nod for Best Album to Sing Terrible Harmonies to During the Morning Car Ride Much to My Wife’s Dismay award.

    And don’t you hate it when Jerk gets dysentery and Idiot breaks his arm?

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