Listening to Midlake….

Midlake are from Denton, Texas.  It’s a college town of about 120,000 people situated between the urban sprawl of the Dallas /Fort Worth conurbation and the state border with Oklahoma.  As is the case with other Texas university towns (notably Austin), Denton has a thriving music scene and most of Midlake were originally students at North Texas University, where they both studied and played jazz.

However, the thing is this; we all know that, musically speaking, Texas is a broad church, which is not surprising given the size of the place (about 3 times the size of the UK)  and bordering Mexico to the south, Louisiana to the east and New Mexico to the west.  The state was/is home to a hugely diverse selection of musicians – Bob Wills,  Lyle Lovett, Ornette Coleman,  T-Bone Walker,  Scott Joplin, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Buddy Holly, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Red Garland – and many more, including Midlake.

We all have ideas about the way Texas music should sound – the huge roaring engine of Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown’s 1950’s  jump blues recordings on Duke/Peacock, the intricate interplay of fiddles and steel guitars in Bob Wills’  Texas Playboys, the lonesome blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins and so on…..

However, Texas music contains a few surprises as well;  for example, around the central ‘Hill Country’ area of the state, large numbers of  19th Century German immigrants established many small communities to the extent that in 1914, there were as many as 24 German-language newspapers being published in Texas.  Today, the prevalence of the accordion in Texas music can probably be attributed to this  ‘German influence’ and cross-border ‘Tejano’ bands play polkas that have their roots firmly in German styles.

So, going back to Midlake, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that they sound nothing like you would expect a Texas band to sound.  This year they have released their third album ‘The Courage of Others’ (Bella Union) and – stylistically at least –  it sounds for all the world as though it was recorded in Devon in the summer of 1971.  True, the music lacks the overt British folk influences of bands like Fotheringay but the mesh of acoustic guitars and the gentle harmonies evoke other bands of that era – perhaps Bronco would be a good reference point.

Midlake on stage

‘The Courage of Others’  follows on from the curiously-titled ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ (2006) and shows marked differences inasmuch as it sounds more ‘folky’ overall – ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ evokes other influences, such as ‘Future Games’-era Fleetwood Mac.  However, train-spotting for Midlake’s influences, whilst entertaining enough, actually misses the point, which is that these guys are highly-talented songwriters.

Like The Band, Midlake’s songs & lyrics evoke an era of American life that seems to lie in the past.  Just as songs by The Band such as ‘The Moon Struck One’ and ‘The Night they drove Old Dixie’ down’ reference a more innocent pastoral era, Midlake’s songs – ‘Roscoe‘ and ‘We gathered in Spring’ from ‘Van Occupanther’  and ‘Winter dies’ or ‘Small Mountain’ from the new album do just the same.

The Courage of Others’ doesn’t seem to have garnered the unreserved praise earned by its predecessor, but to these ears it sounds like a worthy successor – more acoustic in focus perhaps, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

 Since the era of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones,  Americans have, of course,  been accustomed to hearing their indigenous musical styles forced through a European filter and fed back to them as ‘The British Invasion’ or something similar.  It’s not quite so common for us to hear the mood and styles of early 70’s British folk-rock and acoustic prog-rock coming back at us across the water – least of all by a band from North Texas!  All of which should – but probably won’t – teach me not to make generalisations about the kind of music you might expect to be coming out of Texas or Tahiti or Timbuktu.

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