Relying on Tim Smith’s ear for melody and narrative lyrics, the members of Midlake have carved out a place for themselves among the indie-rock masses, a fact more firmly cemented by the theory that 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther is a concept album based on the ancient computer game Oregon Trail. Midlake has thus far been silent on the subject, and the evidence is circumstantial at best, but the Oak and Julian EP doesn’t dash the hopes of any virtual settlers. And the four songs here — “Mornings Will Be Kind,” “Marion,” an alternate version “It Covers the Hillside,” and an acoustic version of “Roscoe” — find the band in fine voice, adding a few more melodic pieces to the already heart-wrenching saga of Mr. Occupanther.
This version of “Roscoe” is slowed down heavily, stripping the song of the Fleetwood Mac quality that helped make it a success. The other songs, all previously available only on the European version of Occupanther, fit considerably well into the slower vibe of the EP. “Mornings Will Be Kind” and “Marion” have the slightly also-ran sound of outtakes, but they fit well into the world Midlake created. The true gem here, however, is the re-imagined “It Covers the Hillside.” Though the album cut was an undeniably catchy collection of shiny keyboards and snare beats, in slowing down the track Midlake creates a song that is arresting in its loveliness. “It Covers the Hillside” demands attention in a way that only the best songs can; it is a testament to the band members’ talent as musicians but also their commitment to artistic growth. Oak and Julian is an excellent companion piece to The Trials of Van Occupanther, but it has more than enough merit to stand alone as an artistic statement.