To dare or not to dare. This is the question, often, for young bands peering down the road of what they hope will be a long, meaningful career. Stick safely down the middle of that highway or veer off wildly? On their second full-length, The Trials of Van Occupanther, the members of Denton, Texas's Midlake choose risk. For the most part, it pays off.
The band could easily have built upon the Flaming Lips/Grandaddy foundations of their 2004 debut, Bamnan and Silvercork, and churned out a mildly entertaining album like Evangelicals' recent release. Instead, the members of Midlake attempt something that, on paper, sounds preposterous: a concept album not unlike something the Alan Parson's Project or even (god forbid) Rush would've winged in the '70s. Miraculously, the thing works.
What's the concept? It's not crystal clear, but apparently Van Occupanther is a resident of a rural village in the 1890s. An interest in what exactly his trials and tribulations are going to be, stoked up nicely by the chugging, mystical opening track "Roscoe," kept me hooked in.
What's the sound? Very piano-driven, to the point that it's fun to imagine what Elton John would do acting as bandleader for these guys. "Did you ever want to be overrun by bandits?" singer Tim Smith asks on the song by that name, and his voice, interplaying with piano and acoustic guitar, is so liltingly pretty as to make you believe you have wanted that. "Young Bride," the standout track, begins with moody fiddles that are soon joined by a zany beat from drummer McKenzie Smith that recalls when Ringo fades back in on "Strawberry Fields" or "Helter Skelter."
Mr. Occupanther is quite the sad sack. His isolation is palpable on the title track; on "Head Home," where he's ignored by a girl who prefers to "read Leviathan"; and on "Branches," where he repeats "It's hard for me but I'm trying" like he's positing a new mantra for the depressed American masses. The problem is that Van's story doesn't come to much of a conclusion. The last three tracks are the album's shortest, dwindling down at 3:14, 2:42, and 1:45. Seems like Midlake simply ran out of ideas (or studio time, or both).
I really struggled with whether Van Occupanther's literary, slightly nerdy, Ren-fair-leaning lyrics were more of a help or a hindrance to the album. At times they're downright laughable, like on "Chasing After Deer," which is a laborious description of doing just that. But at least Midlake risked the ridiculous. The band didn't try for tired boy-girl love songs or even, say, Bush-bashing, which is also getting really old. Do you know another rock album about a maudlin, nineteenth-century forest wanderer? Didn't think so. I hope Midlake will keep choosing to trod this road less traveled.
Streaming audio: http://www.myspace.com/midlakeStream The Trials of Van Occupanther