I'm sure most of us can trace our influence in becoming a fan of such-and-such band through one particular friend who turned us onto them, to a show at which they opened for the band we were there to see, or to a connection by association to another band. Discovering a band on one's own, though, can be a much more satisfying experience. Does discovering one by accident qualify for this distinction, though?
That's what happened when, sometime shortly after the middle of last year, I went onto amazon.com to search for the debut album by The Drams, a band consisting of three former members of Texas alt-country rockers Slobberbone. That album turned out to be nothing special, but one of Amazon's "Customers who bought this item also bought..." recommendations was Midlake's The Trials of Van Occupanther. The only real similarity between the bands is their hometown of Denton, Texas, an artsy enclave on the outskirts of the Dallas suburbs that is also the home to indie rock bands Centro-Matic and The Baptist Generals.
A couple months earlier, Afshin and I had discussed what the album of the year thus far was. Actually, such a discussion generally consists of Afshin telling me what he thinks my #1 album is, me slyly saying "maybe" or "no comment", and the conversation going absolutely nowhere. He was convinced it was The Flaming Lips' The War of the Mystics. That certainly was a contender at the time, but I wasn't satisfied with its potential as an album of the year candidate. I recall thinking and saying to him that I thought I had yet to discover my album of the year. I just had a feeling something special was going to come along in the second half. It did.
Trials is one of those albums that comes along about once a decade. It's just that, in this case, it was the second year in a row that such an album materialized. So maybe I exaggerate a little. What I speak of, though, is an album that not only hearkens back to a musical era that most people never took seriously...that not only does this in a way that sounds modern and refreshing...but also ties it together as a wonderful concept album. And, not an overblown, pretentious and self important concept album, a la a few of the bands I've already written about. But, instead, one with timeless meaning...in this case, that of the struggle of human beings who feel out of place in a world that feels like it has passed them by. People who long to live in a simpler time, one in which maybe they would be better understood. Yes, I agree that "sometimes I want to go home and stay out of site for a long time". And, of course, how could I be completely enthralled with an album that didn't cover the territory of unrequited love. Alright, so this kind of sounds like I'm describing America's "Lonely People", but maybe that's not just a coincidence.
In September, I was in New York to attend a Yankees' game with Jud. The day after the game, we made our semi-regular visit to Kim's Records, a truly independent record store that has actually survived the digital age. I was already pretty obsessed with the Midlake record. I pointed it out to Jud, referring to it as "...a cross between America and the Alan Parsons Project, only better than anything either of those bands have ever done". Jud called me out on this bit of indie snobbery, saying something about comparisons like that being ridiculous. He was right. How can you say something blows away its influences, when it might not exist if not for those influences? But, you have to draw the line somewhere. Obviously, bands can improve upon what has come before, and Midlake, in my opinion, is way better than both of those bands. Now, if I had made the comparison to Fleetwood Mac and ELO, that would've been a different story.
The main complaint most people have with this album is that the first half is incredibly strong, but it fades somewhat after that. I don't entirely agree. While the first half is stronger, and includes the album's best songs ("Roscoe", "Bandits", "Van Occupanther"), the second half, in fact, is just as essential. "It Covers the Hillsides" is just as worthy as those songs previously mentioned, and along with "Chasing After Deer" and "You Never Arrived", ties together the album's overall theme very nicely, particularly with the album's closing line, "...we'll pass by for the last time".
The Midlake live experience is just as magical as this record. I'll be seeing them live for the second time in just a couple of weeks. I'm happy to report that they've gone from playing a sold out show at the tiny upstairs room at the Middle East to the more reputable Paradise Rock Club. I think I could have sold my $10 ticket to that first show for somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 on craigslist, because their popularity had risen dramatically since the booking of that tour.
Midlake is the 40th band on this list only because they are my most recent discovery. As I previously said about Okkervil River's Black Sheep Boy, this album could easily rank among my top ten of all-time, and since it was only their second album, Midlake tops my list of bands I most look forward to finding out what they have to offer to their listeners in the years to come.
An Early All-Star Ballot
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