When Denton, TX band, Midlake, released The Trials of Van Occupanther in 2006, they received critical acclaim, which put the pressure on the group to follow up with similar success. Four years later, the band has finally prepared the next installment in their catalogue, The Courage of Others. Influences for the album are said to rest somewhere in the British-folk era, but would the four years since their last release match the acclaim the band received last go round?
Upon first listen, “Acts of Man” opens the introduction with Tim Smith’s trademark vocals, seemingly floating on the winds. As a completed song, it does have the wintry affect one would associate with a lot of 60s folk-undertakings, marked most notably by the way the guitar is strummed. Still, there isn’t a wow factor, or something that stands out as brilliant, like “Roscoe,” but it’s only the first track.
But, herein likes the problem with The Courage of Others; you can make it through the first four songs of the album, and nothing really differentiates itself; nothing is begging for you to come back for a repeat visit. Admittedly, all the songs are pleasant enough, with gentle guitars and Smith’s floating vocals, which can’t really hurt the overall value of the album. However, it doesn’t bode well that nothing really seems to change in the craftsmanship of the songs either; they all sort of stay in the same place, as if they’ve been created as small pieces to fit into a larger puzzle.
“Fortune” is one of the few songs on the album where the approach to writing the music seems to have been altered. It’s got little to no percussion, and the song rests on the idea that Smith appears as some sort of musical bard, just picking his way through his life. It also touches with imagery that is more personal than some of the more nature related themes you’ll find elsewhere on the The Courage of Others.
This isn’t to say that all the blandness doesn’t have its rewards. “Bring It Down” is worthy of repeated listens, and though it clearly has roots in the past, the barely audible female vocal buried beneath the lead vocal tracks adds an extra bit of layering that the entire album could of used as a whole. “In the Ground” is another number that grows with repeats. It begins a bit slow, but there’s just a bit of a quiver in the vocal delivery, which does just enough to make it come across a bit differently, though those flutes (are they horns) get a touch annoying.
After four years of waiting, you would have hoped that the next work from Midlake was as rewarding as their previous effort, but it seems that letting the songs fester for too long might have led the band down the path towards complacency. For what its worth, The Courage of Others is listenable, but other than that, it’s far short of remarkable, which makes it a disappointment to many, if not most.