Midlake – The Trials of Van Occupanther

The Trials of Van Occupanther

It could be a sophomore slump or maybe an adjunct pop exploration in what will become a long and industrious career. But ultimately the music speaks for itself, and only time will tell. But one thing is for sure, The Trials of Van Occupanther sees this quintet from Denton, TX shifting gears from the atmospheric psychedelics of its debut, Bamnan and Slivercork.

Midlake has downshifted a bit and have traded delicately layered, atmospheric pop and charming quirkiness for a kinder, gentler, and charming dream pop. It may not be a step backwards, but it is definitely a step back in time, as most of the tracks on Trials are built upon a stratum of 70’s soft-rock influences. And while definitely a pop record, many of the songs have classical undercurrents, not only in the diverse arrangements with various breaks and transitions but also in the variety of instrumentation employed, including piano, flute, french horn, double bass, bassoon, and violin in addition to the standard rock tools.

Fortunately for us, head Laker Tim Smith has a keen songwriting aptitude, and we are equally fortunate that the band members are adept multi-instrumentalists capable of producing pleasant melodies with adventurous arrangements. So while the subdued vocal harmonies and acoustic folk influences of 70s pop bands Chicago and America can be heard, there is enough intricately layered dream-pop floating around the fleshed-out orchestrations to keep indie-rock fans contented.

Some of the best music on the disc can be found on the opening track “Roscoe,” along with “Bandits,” “Head Home,” and “In This Camp.” Showing hints of the same blithe alternative pop as World Party and The Shins, these tracks contain well-crafted, bouncy rhythms and vibrant interludes, including dreamy keyboards and slick electric guitar leads reminiscent of Dire Straits. Although a bit more wistful than the others, “Young Bride” is the standout track. With a layered, minor-key melody and a cool, trippy beat, the odd lyrics and tender vocals captivate the listener while the violins waft aesthetically.

Unfortunately the other six tracks don’t contain enough of the same luring enchantment as those mentioned above, and so they tend to wallow in the vapors of 70’s soft rock. Although not as engaging or memorable, they are mostly pleasant and strongly polished due to the sagacious songwriting and excellent musicianship.

Midlake has taken its music in a different, if not unexpected, direction and has me wondering aloud what direction the band will take next. But in the meantime, I’m going to sit back and enjoy The Trials of Van Occupanther since it contains enough amiable and alluring dream-pop with ample atmospheric charm to overlook its few weaknesses and prove it a rewarding venture.