For a few years now the notion of “influenced by the ’70s” has come to mean spiky, angular guitar bands reminiscent of punk circa 1979. Tim Smith and his Texas band Midlake have ploughed an altogether different ’70s furrow for The Trials Of Van Occupanther, their second record.
There must be something in the water over at Bella Union HQ just now. A couple of weeks ago they released the stunning debut album by Howling Bells. Now comes this very different but compellingly lovely album that convincingly suggests, in hippy-folky ways, that the clash of modernity and a better time is of essential importance.
Opening track Roscoe harks after halcyon days in the 1800s, while Bandits suggests that being robbed of one’s material possessions could be a blessing in disguise, the protagonist couple heading out to hunt and fall in love on their search for food. Maybe. It’s pastoral and soothing at any rate.
This lyrical theme, a hankering after a period in our collective history when man was more at one with nature, has been tapped into by everything from the film Running Silent to wannabe hippy chicks (Joan Baez and lately Sandi Thom, yet mentioning Midlake in the same sentence as Tooting’s belle du jour is hardly worthy). Quite who or what Van Occupanther is in this scheme of things is not entirely clear, but it serenades the listener happily back in time anyway.
Rooted in a sound reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac, with vintage-sounding keyboards and folksy acoustica twittering around the central vocal harmonies, there are also obvious nods to Radiohead, especially in Smith’s vocals. Head Home marries the two most effectively, sounding like Thom Yorke fronting Fleetwood Mac. Branches and In This Camp could pass off as Radiohead tracks, while on the title track a flute takes the harmony of the song to a more obviously ’70s place. Smith admits to influences such as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, but while their music runs right through this record, it is also something all of its own.
We Gathered In Spring is one of the many highlights, a psychedelic dirge with Clannad-like synth hooks and unhurried guitar. There’s more on the hunter theme with Chasing After Deer, the album’s most stark moment and a contrast to the full-on sound of the rest of the record.
The track Young Bride most obviously calls to mind Devendra Banhart with its shambling ryhthm and inventive arrangement, but it’s more of a complete article than the bearded pixie has yet managed. Compared variously to The Flaming Lips and Grandaddy, Midlake’s take on ’70s soft rock is actually better than both.
The Trials Of Van Occupanther reveals more of itself with each listen, quietly rooting itself into the subconscious. And that’s just fine – this is an absolutely timeless record to be savoured.