Midlake, “The Courage of Others” (Bella Union) [3.5 STARS out of 4]; The Album Leaf, “A Chorus of Storytellers” (Sub Pop) [3.5 STARS]
For several years now, the indie-rock world has been awash in twee pop bands–genteel, mannered and all-too-polite groups strumming folkie tunes while singing in an intentionally nave style. Midlake and the Album Leaf are two indie bands that don’t rock particularly hard, and which share parts of that same lulling aesthetic, along with a dose of Radiohead-style ambient art-rock. But unlike many of their peers, these groups excel at creating all-encompassing, otherworldly and often very creepy vibes, producing some of the most sophisticated and mature music you’ll hear in a scene rife with immaturity.
A quintet from Denton, TX, with virtuosic jazz chops, Midlake made quite a splash in 2006 with its second album, “(The Trials of) Van Occupanther,” a swirling epic that recalled the quieter, most Pink Floyd-influenced moments from the early Flaming Lips. While touring in support of that disc, the musicians say they became fascinated with the pre-psychedelic folk sounds of groups such as Pentangle and Fairport Convention, and acoustic guitars, slower tempos, sparser arrangements and more naked and plaintive vocals dominate “The Courage of Others.”
There’s also a much more mysterious feel to songs such as “Winter Dies” and “In the Ground.” Not since the Incredible String Band has a group so effectively evoked the mood of pagan rituals in the woods–dark, foreboding and possibly very dangerous, but strangely alluring nonetheless.
“A Chorus of Storytellers” also branches out in some unexpected directions. San Diego-based multi-instrumentalist Jimmy LaValle has long hidden behind the Album Leaf’s moniker to deliver his solo studio efforts–intricate mixtures of acoustic and electronic textures that were undeniably beautiful but sometimes stilted in the way that many one-person recordings can be. Touring in support of his last album, “Into the Blue Again” (2006), LaValle fronted a truly extraordinary band, and the live shows turned into much more organic affairs. Now, on the Album Leaf’s fifth release, he’s recorded live for the first time with a full band.
As a result, there’s a lot more air and openness in striking songs such as “Within Dreams” and “Summer Fog”–though as those titles indicate, the Album Leaf has lost none of the ethereal qualities that have attracted a devoted fan base over the last decade. Once again mixed by Birgir Jon Birgisson, producer of Sigur Ros, the group does frigid and frosty even better than those Icelandic cult heroes, and without any of the classical/operatic pretensions.