Many years ago, I went up to the eastern Highlands of Scotland with a bunch of friends, for a long weekend of walking and drinking. Mostly drinking. One sunny day, we took a walk up into the mountains to Loch Brandy, and (as tends to happen in Scotland) the weather turned. There we were, hunkering down behind a rock to avoid the worst of the horizontal rain, when a thought struck me. “It sure is beautiful up here”, I pondered, “But I wish I was somewhere else”.
Which is exactly where I am with Midlake’s new album, “The Courage Of Others”. One song is beautiful, but taken as a whole, all adds up into one big melange of doom and gloom. Writing an album with 11 songs, and making 10 of them in a minor key, doesn’t make for a chirpy or pleasant listen. And this is a real shame coming from a band whose previous album (“The Trials of Van Occupanther”) was, for the first half at least, an absolute joy. Tender, rollicking, evocative, deftly written, wonderfully played and sung, it’s one of my top albums of the naughties. I’ve given the new one a chance, and whilst I can see that it’s lovely, in its own way, it’s not really for me.
Will I change my mind seeing them live at the Shepherds Bush Empire?
On trundled the band, augmented by a couple of extra guitarists, beards and all, launching first into “Winter Dies”, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. Then “The Horn”, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. Then, “Small Mountain”, a, yes, you got it, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. By this stage, I was thinking “Well, they are great musicians, the flute playing is all well and good, but I’m getting, you know, a touch bored.”
Thankfully, the band heard my errant brainwaves and played “Bandits”. And herein lies the rub, like Billyboy Shakespeare said. Hearing the new songs interspersed with older numbers just threw the problem with the newer songs into sharp relief. “Bandits” was lovely. “Young Bride” was equally lovely. You know, these songs have texture and style and are little bundles of exquisite songwriting. They don’t batter you into submission with their minor keys and unvarying tone of doomosity.
Then, after a power cut (dealt with in charmingly insouciant manner), came some more tracks from the new album. Minor key, major key (“Fortune” – the only major key song on the album, fact fans), minor key with a dual flute assault. And then relief! “Van Occupanther”! Hurrah! A charming little song, with the most heartbreaking chorus, with the ascending “Let me not be too consumed\With this world”; if the band aren’t playing your heartstrings like a harp at that point, you should just give up on seeing bands. Or give up on music altogether.
And then “Roscoe”! Double hurrah! Which, the clever clogs amongst you will point out is also in a minor key. But it doesn’t matter. The song moves along at a pretty decent clip; the harmonies are exquisite, there’s a palpable tension in the lyrics and it tells a story – it’s not just “Minor key, we’re all doomed, here’s a flute solo”. Speaking of which, we then had “Acts Of Man”, “Children Of The Grounds”, “Core of Nature” and “Bring Down”. All of which were, yep, minor key. Except Sarah Jaffe came on to sing one of them, which lightened the mood a touch.
Thankfully, the set closed with “Head Home”, with a bolted-on new intro, fooling us all into thinking it was another slow-mid-tempo minor key number, but of course mutated into a truly wonderful stormer. And having “Branches” as the encore again showed exactly what this band can do when they want to.
I wouldn’t want you to think I dislike the new album, or didn’t like seeing them live. Not in the slightest – we had a great night1 out, the band are charming, friendly and wonderful musicians, and seeing the work experience kid (joke courtesy of Arseblogger) run out those guitar solos like he wasn’t even trying was an experience all on its own. That kid is the new Slash, I tell you. Genius.
It’s just that these songs work well when they are listened to individually. On a whole record, the listener gets battered into submission by about track 6 and it’s a struggle to keep listening. Live, a track here or there interspersed with their other material would be fine. They are good songs, after all. The problem is that there’s precious little variety. The songs are so similar compositionally that they just blur into one. I don’t want to get all Fix Your Mix on you (go to this utterly amazing article on “Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear to see how this compositional analysis lark should be done – frankly, it’s completely beyond me), but there are ways of making minor key songs interesting. “Van Occupanther” had a few (“Head Home”, “Roscoe”), but you didn’t notice, as they were gorgeous songs, interspersed with diverse and varied songs. “The Courage Of Others” doesn’t. My sole notes from the first listen I had to the new album simply read “Minor Key? WTF!”.
(In case you’re thinking “This guy is a total muppet! He wants happy music!”, well, let’s just say that Tindersticks first three albums are amongst my favourites, and there’s about a handful of major key tracks on there. And even the major key songs are effing miserable. It’s not about the key, or the message, it’s about what you do with it)
I’ve got no doubt that this lot are hugely talented; you don’t write an opening four song sequence as seen on “Van Occupanther” unless you really, really know what you’re doing. But it seems as though they’ve got themselves stuck in a musical place that may well be interesting for them, but isn’t for us. Or me, at least. Please come out of the dark, dark woods and into the sunshine, chaps.
1 Notwithstanding the usual London gig-going idiots, who think it’s fine to talk over the intros and the quiet parts of the songs, and then bellow along to the songs they know, out of tune, like a drunken walrus. Not that it would help if they were in tune. I came to the gig to see and hear the band, not listen to some fool yell along. This isn’t Oasis, you know. Shut up.