As the 21st century began, the music industry was inching its way toward a classic-rock revival, with underground bands like the White Stripes reacquainting indie-rock fans and musicians with the raucousness of the blues. When Southern rockers Kings of Leon went platinum in 2008 with Only by the Night, however, the inching was over, and the time for triumphant stomping had arrived. The shamelessly outsized power chords, howling vocals and scraggly beards that made the ’70s such an invigorating and bloated time were once again mainstream.
The members of the Denton band Midlake have the facial hair and reverence for tradition necessary for any good retro-rock outfit, but that’s where their similarity to most ’70s revivalists ends. For one thing, they make music that’s completely free of bombast. Their influences aren’t Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd or Black Sabbath, but ’70s soft-rock troubadours like Fleetwood Mac and America. They enjoy acoustic guitars and close harmonies. Several of their songs feature the flute.
Their newest album, The Courage of Others, comes out this week on indie label Bella Union. On it, singer-songwriter Tim Smith and his group take their love of acoustic traditionalism past vintage pop into more obscure territory, conjuring the pastoral imagery and courtly harmonies of near-forgotten ’60s British folk revival heroes like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. With its hypnotic vocals, baroque instrumental counterpoints, and mystical lyrics about frozen woods and dying seasons, The Courage of Others maps an ancient, melancholic world. When Smith sings, “I will let the sounds of these woods that I’ve known sink into blood and to bone,” he sounds like he should be in an English glade pining for a chaste lady or contemplating the eternal mysteries of the forest.
There’s no irony or lightheartedness in Midlake— not in their songs, which are dead-serious incantations about “days that count for nothing” and “creatures that dwell,” and not in their acknowledgement of their inspirations. In interviews, band members are quick to let listeners know exactly who they’ve been borrowing their sound from, as if admitting their influences frees them from the responsibility of transcending them.
There’s a fine line between tribute and imitation, and Midlake blurs that line every time they immerse themselves in the sound of another era and claim it as their own, diving deeper into the past with each album. On their debut EP, they channeled Radiohead. Then it was Grandaddy on LP Bamnan and Slivercork, and the late-’70s Laurel Canyon soft-rock scene on their breakthrough The Trials of Van Occupanther.
Now we get The Courage of Others, with its British folk-revival revivalism. There’s no doubting the sincerity of Midlake, but it’s hard not to feel that the reason that the band keeps looking back is because they haven’t found a language of their own.