Midlake – The Trials of Van Occupanther

To be honest, the easiest way of describing The Trials of Van Occupanther to you would be to say that it’s the greatest Fleetwood Mac album that Fleetwood Mac never recorded…

To be honest, the easiest way of describing The Trials of Van Occupanther to you would be to say that it’s the greatest Fleetwood Mac album that Fleetwood Mac never recorded…

Midlake – The Trials of Van Occupanther


Beards are a good sign in rock on the whole, although you’d probably be correct in the assumption that any man who takes the time to grow a beard is doing it for one of the following reasons:

1) to make them look older

2) to make them look more intelligent or

3) to hide the fact that no matter what clothes they wear, they still end up looking like an accountant. (Sam Beam of Iron & Wine fame is a prime example of this.)


The members of Midlake have beards. Or at least most of them do. The drummer has a baby face but you can tell that he really, really wants to grow one and just can’t. (You can sympathise with that! Ed.) It’s not the look that makes beards a good sign though, after all there’s still nothing pleasant about a man with food in his beard or wiping beer foam from his ‘tache is there? No, the reason that beards are a good sign in rock is that it takes patience to grow a beard. There’s a level of grooming involved that most blokes simply can’t be arsed with. Men take great pride in their beards. Strangely, they don’t seem to take much care of the hair on the rest of their heads, but the beards are well maintained. There’s always a contemplative, methodical soul hidden behind a beard and the fact that Midlake have a canny selection of facial hair decorations filled me with joy. Beards just give you the impression that the album won’t have been rushed. Beards tell you that time, thought and preparation have gone into the making of the album and that, at the very least, there’ll be something mildly interesting and well put together inside its cover.


Any Incendiary head that has heard Midlake’s debut album Bamnam and Silvercork will understand immediately as to why this band were picked to support The Flaming Lips on their recent European tour. Bamnam was a great little piece, filled to bursting with the chirps clicks and beeps that have made The Flaming Lips and Grandaddy so popular. Awash with layers of keyboards and jaunty melodies, Bamnam sounded like a band messing around in the studio and somehow pulling together something rather quirky and entertaining. The Trials of Van Occupanther is a long way away from that.


The Trials of Van Occupanther is instantly surprising because it just sounds so professional. So clean, so precise and so expertly produced. This isn’t in the Grandaddy or Flaming Lips schools of music any longer. Midlake have suddenly graduated up to the Steely Dan/Pink Floyd level of production. It has that same flawless, perfect sound that Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill has, that clean, pristine sound that just sounds so perfect. It hits you instantly, from the opening guitar line of Roscoe and carries on throughout. This album has a classic sound, in the way that only some of the most overblown records of the 1970’s have. I’m talking Wish You Were Here, Can’t Buy A Thrill, Born To Run and of course, Rumours. To be honest, the easiest way of describing The Trials of Van Occupanther to you would be to say that it’s the greatest Fleetwood Mac album that Fleetwood Mac never recorded because it is highly reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac, particularly on the track Head Home, but to be honest I feel that that would be doing Midlake a disservice. The Trials of van Occupanther reminds you of everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Radiohead on occasion but it succeeds on its own merits.


The lyrics are fantastic. Of course, they have been written by a bloke with a beard so there’s a lot of wishful thinking and self pity and remorse involved along the way, but you simply can’t argue with the quality. Roscoe, for example contains the following gem, “Whenever I was a child I wondered, ‘What if my name had changed into something more productive?’ Like Roscoe, been born in 1891. Waiting with my Aunt Rosaline.” Young Bride contains some classic descriptions including, “darkness and forests grant you / the longest face made from porridge and stew” and Bandits contains what must be one of the greatest opening lines of all time, “Did you ever want to be overrun by bandits?”


We’re talking excellent work here and musically it’s the same. The arrangements are very clever, allowing each musician in the band their own space, with enough variety to keep them occupied and yet the songs never feel overblown. I mean, you’ll hear pianos, fiddles, flutes, guitars and all sorts of stuff throughout this album and never for a moment does anything sound over produced. Everything fits. The harmonies are amazing, particularly on Head Home and you’ve just got to admire the way that each song is layered.


Take the song Head Home. It begins with some mournful keyboards then the drums gently kick the song into a steady little rhythm. The vocals arrive and then guitars seem to ghost in and out almost fleetingly until the chorus arrives and the full vocal harmonies begin and create what is the audible equivalent of honey sliding down your throat. This sweetness builds until we’re treated to the fuzziest guitar solo since 1973, which is brilliant and feels totally warranted and then they just add layers of everything you’ve heard so far on top of each other till the song pretty much explodes from its own exuberance. To say you’ll be left wanting more is an understatement.


The quality of the music can not be underestimated but what makes the album work so well is the way the lyrics and music marry together so well. There’s emotion and longing in the lyrics, for sure, but that’s all backed up by the music. George Clinton once told his guitar player Eddie Hazel to “Play like your mother just died,” and Maggot Brain was the result. For the song Young Bride Tim Smith must have said to the violin player, “Play like you’ve just ran over your new born baby’s head with the car.” It wails, it moans and it cries but the drums pound along behind it and it sounds absolutely fantastic.


The album does tend to lose some of its gloriousness towards the end, it must be said, but that’s mainly down to the first two thirds of the record being so damn good as opposed to them just packing the rest of the album with filler. There’s hardly a bad note on the album in total and the end package is something quite remarkable. Think of it this way, if the soundtrack for Almost Famous made you want to rush out and buy a bunch of classic rock records, this will have you doing back flips. With Midlake, Texas has some new sons to be proud of. The Trials of Van Occupanther is a handsome, extremely well crafted record that deserves to sell by the Springsteen load. For beard lovers and historians everywhere, this is a true classic. For the rest of us it could well become one.


Words : Damian Leslie