REVIEW: Midlake creates a sense of camaraderie, mystery and imagination on new album

For the Love of Bethel Woods
3 out of 5 stars

The landscape of music history is littered with once-successful bands who, after losing their lead singer and/or songwriter, tried to carry on with diminishing or even worse results. Despite some notable exceptions (Genesis after Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd after Syd Barrett and Roger Waters), the story doesn’t sway on the favorable side.

Denton, Texas, Midlake dodged that bullet. They decided to continue after lead singer/lead songwriter Tim Smith quit a band he was managing almost after. The courage of others in 2010. They not only rebounded with Antiphonin 2013, guitarist Eric Pulido assumed lead vocalist status and two new members were incorporated, but continued to respect and build their independent credibility while entering more oblique, somewhat progressive territory.

Then comes this much-delayed fifth studio set proving that any doubts about the quintet’s future can be dismissed.

The once folksy, bucolic approach to attire gradually morphed into a sound that is sometimes spatial, always pensive and often atmospheric. The lyrics are generally vague and inscrutable but, as the record’s title suggests (Bethel Woods is the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival), the loss of innocence and philosophical purity over the decades dominates the concept.

The subtle vibe hovers with only intermittent glimpses of choruses/bridges/riffs/melodies. The material is co-credited to all five members with music reflecting that community spirit. Led by Pulido’s breathless vocals, the album maintains a balanced, melancholic vibe, somewhere between atmospheric rock and rust-colored folk. A recurring nod to discreet funk and sporadic prog influences jumps into unpretentious psychedelia.

It takes a few laps for the tracks to register, as some sound more like provocative tracks than songs. But once they do, the thoughtful lyrics and sometimes diffuse sounds come into play.

Between the concepts and the soundscape, there is something to chew on. Professionalism and elegant production (by John Congleton) create Midlake’s sense of camaraderie, mystery and imagination. It’s an impressive comeback for a band that many thought would never reappear.

Photo credit: Barbara FG

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