Midlake – The Courage Of Others [Album Review]

by oz on February 8, 2010

I once asked a buddy for a restaurant recommendation in Florence, Italy. He emailed back the name of a place with a comment about their truffles, saying “they are earthy and divine.”‚  I never expected a guy that funneled beers with me in college to talk about truffles let alone use that phrase, but by happenstance, this random phrase is how I’d describe Midlake’s latest release, The Courage Of Others. Earthy. And devine.

It’s also a perfect album for the winter season. It’s sound is heavily influenced by 60’s British prog-folk-rock with mystical lyrics, flute accompaniments and melancholy themes. It’s not an album you want to throw on at your next party, but it immediately gave me the urge to walk through a damp, foggy forest in solitude.

So that’s what I did. I put in the headphones and, for the first time, hiked to the top of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.‚  It was the site of furious Civil War battles that claimed the lives of more than 5,000 soldiers. Hearing these somber songs while walking past cannon emplacements and preserved earthworks in this battlefield of ghosts made the early morning hike extremely eerie. As I approached the summit, “The Courage of Others” began to play with lines:

How can they have the courage?
Of lords that have long since past.
It’s in their hands. It’s their heads.
It’s been in their blood for many years and brings them sorrow.
In a dark room he trembles alone. He trembles alone.

It was a moving experience and I don’t think the moment’s gravity would have been felt without Midlake providing the backdrop. I captured a picture on my phone:

Kennesaw Mountain

I’m aware that this isn’t a typical album review, but this is one of those albums that must be experienced. There is no standout single like “Roscoe” on 2006’s outstanding The Trials of Van Occupanther but The Courage of Others is a better body of work than it’s predecessor. It’s available on eMusic if you’re a subscriber. No mp3’s have been released, but there’s a little player below for sampling.

Myspace music player

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Dustin Roberts February 8, 2010 at 8:32 am

I agree this album is incredible. I believe your review did an excellent job describing this album.

Clarence February 8, 2010 at 8:54 am

A wonderful album. I predict that this will be among my top 5 album releases for 2010 at the end of the year.

Blue Koyote February 8, 2010 at 4:50 pm

I’m glad you were able to say something different about it. I can’t decide if its great or contrived, but one thing’s for sure… I can’t stop listening to it !

Eugenia February 8, 2010 at 5:23 pm

It’s a beautiful album, but it’s too monotonous. The pace/tempo never really changes. This makes for one very flat album mood-wise, EVEN if the songs individually are ALL very, very good. Pitchfork’s review also mentioned this (one of the very few times that I actually agreed with their elitist magazine), but I found their score too low. I’d say that this is a 6.5/10 or 7/10 album.

I believe that this is an album that would shine in shuffle iPod mode. This way, the shuffling would take care of the change of the mood, and when one of these songs will come out, they would surely stand out for what they are. But listening to them one after the other, it’s too “even” of an experience and feelings.

Another thing that somewhat bothered me with this album (which I had pre-ordered weeks ago) is that none of these (great) songs is as good as “Head Home”. For me, that’s the ultimate Midlake song. It captivates me somehow and transports me to another place.

One funny note: we were listening to this album with my husband yesterday, and he said that “they remind me of another band”. My husband doesn’t really knows names of bands and whatnot (music is my job in our household), so he couldn’t remember what band he was reminded of. Eventually, we figured out that the band he was referring to was actually… Midlake. He was thinking of “Head Home” and “Roscoe” that had come up on his iPod shuffle in the past. 😉

Michael February 8, 2010 at 6:13 pm

Ugh, Eugneia, please. Give it a rest. I’m SO sick and tired of everyone consulting with Pitchfork before they disclose their own opinions It’s tired, predictable and just plain ridiculous. Monotony should not be used interchangeably with unified consistency and atmosphere, a direction this new album obviously takes pride in. Besides, The Courage of Others is not only the best and most complete album of Midlake’s impressive career, it’s already thrown down the gauntlet for the best album of 2010. It has an ageless beauty that will likely not be matched. It’s wonderfully out of step with current trends.

oz February 8, 2010 at 6:37 pm

@Blue Koyote – I had the same struggle early on. I heard a few flute notes and some lyrics that reminded me of The Hobbit and I thought “Oh shit. Not Tenacious D.”

While a few songs feel like they’re stretching a bit (from organic to druid cult), they don’t go overboard. I think the album is tasteful and subtle without being pretentious. Jesus. We are talking about truffles.

@Michael – I agree it will be at the top of lists for 2010 and I agree with your points about consistency and atmosphere. One of our favorite albums from last year was from Other Lives and many critics had the same complaint. Throw in an upbeat pop tune, though, and the album would have been crucified. I think the same holds true here. “Children of The Grounds” contains about as much tempo as the album can hold.

I just love any album that I can listen to from start to finish.

Eugenia February 8, 2010 at 6:41 pm

>I’m SO sick and tired of everyone consulting with Pitchfork before they disclose their own opinions

And I’m disappointed of you taking this conclusion out of nowhere. The opinion was mine, and was formed immediately after I listened to the record a week ago (as I said, I had pre-ordered it, so I got my hands on it immediately after its release — Monday night 1st Feb). Pitchfork’s review simply strengthened the idea I had already formed. If you ever stumble across my blog, you will read how much I dislike Pitchfork btw. 90% of the times I just dont’ agree with its reviews! So please take your Pitchfork excuse out of the equation. I’ve written a 4-paragraph comment, and Pitchfork was only mentioned in one of them.

>unified consistency and atmosphere

Oh, I’m all for that!! But not changing the MOOD and PACE in the whole album, is a different thing, and a creative mistake. It shows a very single-sided artist, and I personally prefer artists that have more sides of themselves to show. If I wanted a single-mood/pace album, I’d just buy an ambient electronic $3 album — you know, the ones that they sell for yoga and meditation. But from a folk-rock album, I’d expect a bit more than that.

>The Courage of Others is not only the best and most complete album of Midlake’s impressive career

I don’t disagree with that. As I wrote on my iTunes review for the album, this album has MORE good songs than their previous album. The problem is that they all have the same mood, and that not one of them is a super-major stand-out as “Head Home” was. For me, the album just felt too copycat of its own self.

>it’s already thrown down the gauntlet for the best album of 2010

I’m afraid that this will go to Yeasayer’s album that came out today. Overall, I found it more challenging. Whereas I’d give Midlake a 7/10, I’d give Yeasayer’s a 9/10. But that’s just me.

However, Michael, please don’t think that I’m someone who dislikes Midlake. I LIKE Midlake. That’s why I pre-ordered their album, and was eagerly waiting for it for months now. But I have to speak my mind, I always do. And this album could have been done a bit better in my very own non-Pitchfork opinion.

Jeff McQ February 8, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Love the sound of this. Not only do I want to listen to the record, but I’ve already made plans to see them when they come to Denver. Thanks for sharing this.

Michael February 9, 2010 at 10:32 am

Eugenia, Midlake’s previous full-lengths essentially comprised outstanding singles supported by excellent, if slightly less memorable, album tracks. Midlake could have easily been considered a singles band, but they’ve decidedly taken a more mature approach with The Courage of Others. Just because it’s unrelenting in its somber mood, does not mean its monotonous. The culminated effect is more impacting than its constituent parts because it’s meant to be digested as a whole. Its hermetic tone encapsulates Tim Smith’s increasing disillusionment with the world and the degenerating relationship between humanity and nature. It expresses discomfiture with the effects of modern conveniences. Not a single hint of this album ever feels like an afterthought. Every element of this masterwork feels purposeful and measured. Given this album’s turbulent gestation with initial sessions scrapped, it’s clear that the finished product perfect distills the band’s intent.

Besides, that Pitchfork review is one of the most needlessly inflammatory and self-indulgent reviews I’ve ever come across with any given source. People act like Pitchfork is the Supreme Court of the music journalism world–the ones with the end-all, be-all say-so. Even if you’re not one of them, it is undeniable Pitchfork has its thousands of mindless minions that will obey their every command and heed to their every word. They are nowhere near the best source for music reviews. Unless you just love pompously inflated, contradictory, masturbatory, self-important horseshit that focuses more on the writer’s capabilities rather than the musical content at hand.

Regardless, I still feel like the naysayers of the album are SORELY missing the point. Much of their dissatisfaction stems from a clear lack of patience and active listening. The lack of surface variation between the tracks is aesthetically chosen, and not resulting from monotony or a band void of inspiration. The Courage of Others is an exercise of restraint. I feel those who are still haven’t gotten into this album should observe with high-end headphones. In this context, it is easier to hear how assiduously constructed each of these songs is. The leaf-strewn density of the arrangements will unveil intensely melodic, richly detailed songs accentuated with superbly understated craft. This album sidesteps explorations in catchy songwriting and instead opts for textured, moody passages of bruised ruminations and worldly afflictions. Casual approaches WILL not and DO not work for this album.

I did not expect The Courage of Others to be so dichotomizing. People should have let the album settle before determining its merit. I am confident between The Trials of Van Occupanther and this latest endeavor, the latter is the much deeper and ultimately more satisfying effort. I have never heard an album with a more unruffled balance of modernity and timelessness. It’s a magical alchemy.

With that said, I have yet to receive my copy of Odd Blood in the mail and I consciously avoided the leak, but for the record, just because an album is more challenging, which may or may not be the case, doesn’t mean it implies superiority. A band’s sound can be challenging without being self-consciously experimental, as evident with Midlake’s catalog.

lafamos February 9, 2010 at 11:19 am

i dig the sound

but i can’t get over the dude’s voice

sounds too much like chris cornell

Eugenia February 9, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Michael, I actually listened to the album with both my high-end headphones (I don’t use iPod earphones, my ears are too small so they hurt me), and our big speakers in our living room ($1000 speaker system with a high-end Yamaha amplifier). I like the melodies on the album just fine, when the songs are taken into account individually.

But I think our difference is that I prefer that some of the tracks on any given album have be more mood-changing than the rest. It’s simply a different listening pattern. I can’t listen to 10 depressed songs in one sit. I need a variation. I like music to play and surface many different feelings in me, rather than just one. Midlake’s album made me nostalgic about my mountain home where I grew up. Goats and sheep running around, people always with a smile, climbing trees. Which is a good feeling to being reminded of your childhood. But then, for 45 minutes, that was the only feeling it got out of me. And a bit of depression too, for not being able to be a child and at my real home anymore. It was a bit too much of the same feeling for me.

Regarding the Yeasayer album, I found all 7 first songs on the album to be top notch, but the last 3 were a bit lacking (if not a bit underdeveloped, or cheesy). Overall though, pretty good.

Woody February 9, 2010 at 6:04 pm

I like it. Good review Oz.

Lucas February 11, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Love this band.

DaveF February 12, 2010 at 10:00 am

I’ve given this album loads of plays; it has a similar effect on me as a 50-something Englishman as the Fleet Foxes album does – it takes me back to the late 60’s and evokes the feelings of that time without being slavishly imitative. My only comment is that the consistent lugubriousness of the album lets it down. It needs a bit of major-chord up-tempo magic to break it up. Nevertheless it’s compelling.

Michael February 17, 2010 at 11:05 am

In response to DaveF, if Midlake did that with The Courage of Others, it would make for an uneven album. “Children of the Grounds” and “The Horn” shakes things up enough while still maintaining congruity with the rest of the tracks.

Eugenia, I’ve listened to Odd Blood a few times. It’s solid, but not even close to being a frontrunner for the best album of 2010. Nor does it surpass the excellence of All Hour Cymbals. Its momentum is too ungainly in places and its musical touchstones are too transparent. The horn sections featured on some tracks, “The Children” and “Mondegreen,” namely, are derivative of TV on the Radio to the brink of plagiarism. It’s a creative explosion for Yeasayer, to be sure, but the album as a whole feels a bit undisciplined, scattered and inconsistent. “O.N.E.” will be one of the year’s best songs though.

oz February 17, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Can all of you start writing album reviews for HearYa? Your comments are better than our posts.

Michael February 17, 2010 at 8:43 pm

lol seriously?

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