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The Courage Of Others Mick Middles , February 4th, 2010 13:44

I am having a Midlake crisis. With The Courage of Others drifting through my head, I close my eyes. The vision is unexpected. An English meadow in the late 60s, drifting to sleep to The Incredible String Band. The distance between profoundly English folksters and contemporary Texicana men Midlake, seems to nonexistent. This isn't quite what I expected. Like many, my I was alerted to their ground-breaking second album, The Trials of Von Occupanther, and even caught them at Latitude, where the promise within their music seemed such a positive challenge to The Fleet Foxes, among others. There was even a hint of polish about if they might push towards a more accessible position. The expectation was, therefore, tinged with doubt. Would Midlake soften to a mush? Would they become the Eagles of new Americana?

The answer lies within The Courage of Others. Don't worry; it's not exactly Metal Machine Music (or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) that we are talking here. It's just that the expected (and feared) sheen has been avoided. It is an album that backs into a rural idyll. Songs from the shack. It is undeniably beautiful but, within that beauty, curiously uncompromising. One senses a certain stubbornness here which is partly why they attracted so many in the first instance. This is ‘calm down, guys' set. The answer lies with Tim Smith, Midlake's guiding light and principle songwriter. There is a theory that, say, the incredible Stateside success of Jethro Tull – soon to be investigated on this site – now reflects powerfully within the new breed of American bands... that Tull perhaps, tapped into some kind of folk undercurrent. Today, and nowhere more profoundly that within the music of Midlake, this does appear to be the case.

The Courage of Others is a lovely, solid album from the outset. It is a level set of songs that bristle with organic pleasure. Elegiac, classy in all corners, it proudly allows ‘fret-squeak' to remain in place and provides the listener with an intimate sense of ‘performance'. If it has a fault, and this would be picky, it is simply that it doesn't not contain troughs and continues in misty mid-tempo to such an extent that, to those unversed in the delights of this extraordinary band, it might seem ‘lovely...but ever-so-samey'. Perhaps that is so, but when the quality is so spell-binding, why complain. The trick is to relax and absorb. This is not just a different's a ghostly echo from a different world. Retreat 100 years (more, perhaps, for I am no historian) to a pre-urban world. This is the apparently unfashionable base of Midlake. Tim Smith's writing (unlike Jethro Tull, as it happens) pays little heed to the sexed-up triumphs of jazz and rock'n'roll. The musics of Ireland and Africa have yet to clash so spectacularly. But here you are carried along in a rural idyll and, as such, the rush and push of modern life is never evident.

So, is The Courage of Others a holiday in itself? It is...and listening here, I am reminded of the first time I encountered the lovely tones of Vashti Bunyan (also touring in the spring, incidentally). Bunyan, very much a pioneer of the power of female drifting actually did represent the power of escapism in its most basic form... living in caravans etc. Midlake are a log cabin retreat but, once there, the effect is more one of invigoration, rather than sheer relaxation. Ok... there is a solemnity here and you do have to allow those textures – vocals, acoustic guitars and, yes, flute – interweave to a rather numbing effect. The trick of keeping the electric guitar firmly in the undertone serves to provide a brooding sexuality. This erotic twist is never more evident than on the first track, ‘Acts of Man', which is governed by a lyrical austerity. “Oh let me inside, let me inside, not to wake". Make of that, what you will... but suicidal tendencies do not dominate here. It is 40 minutes of contemplation laced with a dark, dark heart. It isn't to everybody's tastes. Midlake can be a deep, cold place where you might not wish to linger. But for those who submit to its is one of the most rewarding pieces of music (and I treat it as one) that one could possibly encounter in the contemporary idiom. Old fashioned, yes... perversely so.