Midlake happens to be a band holding a somewhat special place in my heart, the reason being that I discovered them at one of those old CD listening stations in a thing called a “record store,” formerly a significant entity on ides other than “Record Store Day.” The album was The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006) and they were like a lo-fi, 2000s update on R.E.M. all the way, letting deliberate, original songwriting provide all the fanfare, in lieu of excessive bombast or manufactured emotion.
Now, I was looking at the total streams for that album, and to my surprise, a lot of those songs have got over a million. Of course, I know this isn’t an exact measurement of total popularity, but let’s face it, it’s pretty close. It means a lot of people at least KNOW about this band and are willing to give them enough of a “time of day,” per se, to click on their interface on Spotify and curtly sip their bourbon barrel stouts.
Today, Midlake is kind of like Linda Cohn, in a way. Linda Cohn is a Sports Center achor on ESPN who’s been there since the ’90s, always charming, pithy and personable, all of a sudden busty, now, and beholden to one of the worst swatches of plastic surgery of all time. She’s finally back on the air now, having undergone a couple of cosmetic corrections, apparently, but it’s like: what happened to our little Linda? She’s all grown up now and it seems she’s lost a lot of her natural charm to ambition.
This is very aligned with lots of what’s going on with For the Sake of Bethel Woods, a very ambitious, radio-minded album in spite of its apparently heathen or “off the beatnen path” type of title. It’s also ironic given how natural and organic the opener, or “intro,” if you will, seemed, “Commune.” In fact, at under a minute, “Commune” is actually a track with enough artistic swagger and substance that it seems that they could have stretched it into a whole song. And along these lines, at 44 minutes and 11 songs, For the Sake of Bethel Woods is not an example of a project that’s completely lacking in ideas.
As the title track “Bethel Woods” progressed, anyway, I noticed that the band had completely ripped off the “Electioneering” riff for the piano part. I thought, eh, I wanna like these guys. So I skipped to “Glistening” and gosh, the emotion was just so fake, like singer Tim Smith hadn’t artistically explored any new emotions since The Trials of Van Occupanther, or any other album of the band’s since, just set in the default, prepackaged Midlake songwriting blueprint. And yes, I know it seems ridiculous for Midlake to have a “songwriting blueprint.”
I almost gave up on this album entirely but then I realized, hey, maybe I’m just living in a stupid day and age today, For the Sake of Bethel Woods will never cohere like The Dark Side of the Moon or Ok Computer, as a whole, but perhaps there are some good tracks on it. I mean, I can always just skip the bad ones. Sure enough, “Exile” almost immediately clamors as more original and fresher, with “Feast of Carrion” likewise toting what you’d term as a potent enough bath of melancholy and ominousness to at least make for a gripping listen.
“Gone,” then, is generally a masterpiece, a strident achievement in lo-fi funk that finds Tim Smith’s vocals floating along almost as if in a dream, apparently taking a conspicuous ambivalence to the unique, tense and revelatory disposition of the music, which bounces along as something otherworldly, altogether. “Meanwhile…” would probably have a chance at rock radio ubiquity in 2022 it they’d just make it tackier — not as redolent of these pesky, obtuse things called “phrasing unorthodoxies” and “emotional restraint.” But as a poker-faced denizen of the blogosphere, I’ll take it, if you will. Joey McLellan’s guitar on “Meanwhile…,” too, is a firebrand in and of itself, taking on a very metallic, nasal tone as to almost mimic a cheap Casio keyboard. The end result is freshness, really, more than anything.
It’s hard to say what the lasting effect of For the Sake of Bethel Woods will be (I can tell you certainly it won’t be to soundtrack nature retreats or to commission protection of wilderness open spaces). But, for those willing to cut and sift a little bit, there is definitely a noteworthy chunk of listenable, intriguing music on this LP. It’s like John Barth once wrote, “The grapes are no fewer on a tangled vine.”
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