2007. It was a pretty good year for music. Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver, Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, just to name a few. All of those mentioned albums had heavy rotation in my stereo that year, and I can honestly say that each of those are still played on the regular and I consider them essential albums.
But one of the most interesting and compelling albums I bought in 2007, actually came out in 2006. The Trials of Van Occupanther from Midlake was an album I discovered in the fall of 2007, and I’m not really sure how. I might have read an article about how Jason Lee(My Name Is Earl) was a huge fan of the band, got them a record deal, and directed a video off their first album Bamnan and Slivercork. Or, I might have just come across their video for the song “Roscoe” and became mesmerized.
However I discovered Midlake, it happened in 2007 and I’m sticking to it.
For my birthday that year I asked my wife for both of the band’s studio albums, the aforementioned Bamnan and Slivercork and The Trials of Van Occupanther. So on December 2, 2007 we had just finished our basement family room. I put the albums in the CD player, hit play, and plopped down on the couch. Midlake’s first album was a bit quirkier and stranger than their excellent follow-up, but it made it’s mark on me as well. Tim Smith’s vocals are a unique thing. Light, sleepy, and never go above a conversational level, Smith sounds as if he’s singing stories from some strange book of sci-fi parables, with the band accompanying him on 80s Casio keyboards, guitars, vintage amps, and an old drum set left in a garage over the winter.
The album gives the vibe of finding some long lost album made by sad robots. And there’s a very Grandaddy/Flaming Lips vibe throughout the record as well; melancholy, melodic, with a real fever dream hallucinatory mood.
The Trials of Van Occupanther is an entirely different beast. Midlake’s sound morphs from world-weary, paranoid calliope music made with toy keyboards, to mid-70s driving pop/rock with hints of prog thrown in for good measure. The bass and drums becomes the heart of their sound, while Tim Smith locks into a world with his lyrics. It’s a world that touches on people living in villages, horses, bandits, young brides, with sci-fi touches where the description both paints visions of late 19th century as well as other-worldly, alternate realities. I get the same vibe from the films of Robert Eggers and Ari Aster that I do from Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occupanther. Not the horror aspects, but the vague mixture of reality and fantasy. The dream-like quality in those worlds.
“Roscoe” opens the album and is as recognizable as say the opening of Led Zeppelin IV or the Stones’ Gimme Shelter. The drum roll, bass line, and distorted guitar all come in with authority and the tightness of a real rock band. But then Tim Smith makes it even more unique and singular with the opening line “Stone cutters made them from stones/Chosen especially for, you and I/Who will live inside.” He paints this simple and impressionistic world in just three lines as the song rolls along like a Richard Dashut-produced track. It felt revelatory to me. Something both familiar and alien at the same time.
“Head Home” was another single off the album and a stellar track. It has a driving rhythm and is the most rock and roll track I think I’ve heard from Midlake. The dry, tight production gives it a mid-70s feel. Smith’s lyrics continue to paint this sort of village life as he talks about roof leaks and harvest time. The world of Van Occupanther is an ornate one.
The Trials of Van Occupanther is a solid album from start to finish. Other favorite tracks of mine are “Van Occupanther”, “Branches”, “We Gathered In Spring”, and “It Covers The Hillsides”. Those last two tracks mentioned especially have a very aged, dreamy quality thanks to the keyboards used. There’s an almost Mannheim Steamroller sound to the synths used, which puts me back in my childhood and I’m reminded of Christmas time.
Midlake would go on to make one more record with Tim Smith called The Courage of Others. It was a much darker album, more acoustic-based, and didn’t quite have the magic and imagination of what came before it. It’s an album that has grown on me over the years, though. After that album, Smith parted ways with the band due to musical differences. In 2013 I interviewed Tim Smith and he basically said he and the band couldn’t agree on when a song was done. Smith stated he didn’t want to hold the band back, so he left. They quickly released Antiphon, with guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Eric Pulido taking over vocal duties. It was a great album, but for me without Tim Smith’s vocals and imagination it just didn’t feel like Midlake. Or maybe a more fair way to put it is that it feels like a very different Midlake. Well worth your time, nonetheless.
In 2013 Smith started a new musical project called Harp. At the time of that interview he said he was in the writing process, but had a ways to go to release something. 8 years later Tim Smith is married and is still writing for the Harp debut with his wife. As of 2021 he said he still has a ways to go before we see an album.
In the meantime, we still have the strange and beautiful world of The Trials of Van Occupanther.