"The Courage of Others" (Heligoland) -- 2.5 STARS
On their newest album, “The Courage of Others,” Texas band Midlake strays from the energetic alternative rock of previous releases towards a folk-inspired, pastoral sound. Lead vocalist and songwriter Tim Smith attempts to conjure a wintry atmosphere with delicate acoustic guitar and lyrics about cycles of death and rebirth. Unfortunately, while he does manage to capture a sense of stillness and bleakness, there is no suggestion of spring to come, and the gloomy minor key sustained throughout leaves the listener wanting to hibernate rather than go for a romp in the snow.
Midlake’s past albums, 2004’s “Bamnan and Slivercork” and 2006’s “The Trials of Van Occupanther,” had an indie rock aesthetic which featured traditional songwriting structure and driving beats. On “The Courage of Others” they move to a more folk-based sound, sacrificing the elements of their past for an emphasis on harmonies and atmospheric mood-creation. Unfortunately, these harmonies and moods aren’t sophisticated enough to consistently sustain interest.
The album’s greatest strength is its innovative instrumentation—the original quintet met studying jazz at the University of North Texas, and their training is apparent in the skillfully layered keyboard, classical guitar, and flute arrangements. In addition, Smith’s clear and gentle voice is a pleasure to listen to, although on most tracks he unwisely sacrifices his voice to the limited range of the melodies.
Opening track “Acts of Man,” sets the tone lyrically and harmonically for the rest of the album. The song is rather static: Smith sings within a restricted vocal range, and the lyrics consist of a repeated chant: “If all that grows starts to fade, starts to falter / Oh, let me inside, let me inside, not to wait / Great are the sounds of all that live / And all that man can hold.” While the lyrics refer to both the barrenness of winter and earth’s hidden bounty, the minor key in which the song is written and Smith’s monotone do not give a sense of eventual thawing and renewal. The track that follows, “Winter Dies,” continues this pattern. Smith sings that “Winter dies / The Earth is brought to life,” but this hopeful message is not reflected in the song’s harmonic structure. Midlake might have been able to craft a sense of expectancy and dormant growth by deftly manipulating harmony and melody, but instead they create it using not-so-subtle lyrics.
This incongruity continues until the fourth track, “Fortune,” on which the band’s intentions are beautifully realized. The absence of heavy handed and uninteresting electric guitar riffs—which in previous tracks drown out otherwise intricate instrumentation—allows the acoustic guitar to shine through. Smith’s clear and tender vocals are here successfully highlighted. Liberated by the more varied melody, Smith weaves a narrative that is less mournful and more hopeful than those of the other tracks. For just over two minutes the clouds part, and Midlake captures a poignant sense of winter that is not all doom and gloom.
However, the magic is lost in the next track, “Rulers, Ruling All Things,” on which Smith and the band forget what made “Fortune” successful, reverting to the droning sound and seemingly insincere angst of the earlier tracks. The album reaches a low point on the aptlytitled “Bring Down,” with its melodramatic lyrics: “Pray for all to end / And silence be all / Now the joy has burned out and it’s gone / But I don’t know where.”
The album ends with “In the Ground,” which sounds quite similar to the first track, “Acts of Man.” The subject matter, vocals, and music all have exactly the same feel, showing how the album lacks overall direction. Just as each individual song feels static, lacking a swelling or diminishing of emotion, the album as a whole shows no development through the tracks, and we feel that Smith hasn’t taken us anywhere. That said, Midlake offers its fans an instrumentally original, if not enthralling, listen. Unfortunately, though, “The Courage of Others” forces the listener to hunt for its strengths, which are too often obscured beneath a less appealing surface.