Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Pitchfork Slams Midlake

We're currently doing some remodeling, which includes getting rid of the news section and replacing it with something better that you'll see pretty soon. Posts like this one, which would have normally appeared in the news section, will appear on the main blog from here on out.

I'm sure there are a number of readers who probably assume that I hate Midlake because they know guitar chords and took singing lessons or something, but actually, nothing could be further from the truth-- we enthusiastically wrote about Midlake in the very early days of this blog (to the dismay of some readers), and to this day I feel like The Trials of Van Occupanther is a pretty great record. I still listen to it here and there when I'm in the mood, and the fact that it happens to sound like Fleetwood Mac and America doesn't bother me either-- I like the former quite a bit and don't even mind the latter.

Furthermore, upon hearing the rumors that Midlake's long awaited third record, The Courage of Others, was supposed to be inspired by English psyche folk and specifically Fairport Convention, I was at least somewhat enthusiastic because it seemed like a perfect fit-- if any group of present day American indie rockers could pull that type of thing off without sounding totally silly, Midlake really should have had as good a chance as anyone else, and a better one than most. After getting my hands on a copy of the record and giving it a listen, I realized that my prediction was correct in a sense-- Midlake's new record does not sound silly. It's full of competent songwriting, literary lyrics and fine performances, and its clear that the band really understands and respects the material from which they draw inspiration.

However, there's a little problem with all of this, and its summed up fairly well in today's Pitchfork review of the group's latest effort (a score of 3.6). In it, author Paul Thompson calls it almost exactly as I've heard it on my speakers over the past few weeks-- the record feels unenthusiastic, a little bit forced, endlessly labored over and quite tense, lacking in the warmth and sense of adventure that the group's previous record conveyed so well, which might be a long winded way of saying, simply, that the songs aren't there this time. Indeed, very little of the magic of the last record can be found here, and most of the tracks don't seem to go anywhere or exist for any reason other than to be Midlake songs, as the review alludes to:

"Theirs is an exceptionally polite reading of these British folk constructions, and as nearly every tune tumbles through its ornate intro, its hushed first verse, and the minor lift of its chorus, your patience wears as thin as the tunes."

Again, it almost pains me to say this, but Thompson is totally on point-- Midlake's latest is smart and competent, but feels more than a little lifeless. In case you were wondering, I did read about the group's struggles with making this record, and its important to keep that narrative in mind when listening to what they've produced here-- I've never tried to make a record myself, much less a highly anticipated follow up record, but we can all appreciate what it feels like to be under intense pressures in our careers, and most of us don't even have a "public" to worry about either. This feeling of tension is almost audible on The Courage of Others, and although I'm sure many fans will be able to find something redeeming in it, its a disappointing follow up to a very strong national debut.

Of course, its funny that Pitchfork is making these arguments considering a lot of the stuff the site supports, but the point remains the same, and it seems to apply to a lot of the more popular "indie rock" that has emerged in the past couple of years-- too timid, too labored over, and too goddamn polite to really express much of anything of value; emotionally, intellectually or otherwise. Perhaps its just the times in which we live, or merely a series of unfortunate passing fads, but over the past couple of years I've been more thoroughly dissatisfied with supposedly exceptional music than at any other time in my life, and Midlake's latest record feels merely like an example of what I've been thinking for quite a while-- the current incarnation of American indie rock is on artistic life support.


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