After the reading the review of Midlake's "The courage of others" in Uncut you would inevitably approach this third album by the melodic Texan soft rockers with some trepidation. Phrases like "strangely frigid" and "cold" are scattered throughout and there is some lamenting about the overwhelming influence of English folk rock. Personally if any band want to plunder the works of Fairport Convention, Pentangle or Nick Drake for inspiration it sounds like a wonderful prospect particularly if the band as good as Midlake.
When it comes to Midlake you know the story. In 2006 this band led by Tim Smith released the beguiling "Trials of the Van Occupanther" with its influences drawn from Grandaddy, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and the Flaming Lips and with lush, harmony-laden ballads like "Head Home", "We gathered in spring" combined with truly wonderful melodic rockers such as "Roscoe" (check out the recent fantastic cover by Ellie Goulding). It marked a huge departure from the patchy psychedelia of their debut "Bamnan and Slivercork" and with TV on the Radio's "Cookie Mountain" and Band of Horses great debut it was easily one of the best albums of that year.
So are the good folks at Uncut right, is "The Courage of others" a misstep following the stellar highpoint of "Trials"? Before answering lets check those influences. It is true there is something slightly medieval about some of the songs on "Courage" but "Trials" was also underpinned by a rustic back-to-nature quality and had something of the "ancient" about it. This is also a much more guitar driven album albeit it is much darker and wintry than its predecessor. As such its perfect soundtrack to the UKs recent snowy landscape.
On the first few listens it does sound rather the same throughout but this is dispelled with "deeper" listens. "Acts of Man" is gentle and sumptuous opener, while "Winter Dies" does have clear Fairport influences and is excellent. The real core and strength of the album comes however in the albums mid point starting with the gentle acoustic "Fortune", the lovely folk ballad "Rulers, Ruling all things" and the brilliant "Children of the Grounds" which is this albums "Roscoe". This is Midlake doing what they do best namely melodic rock music with lavish harmonies and lyrics
That said by "Bring Down", "The Horn" and the title track I find the "Courage of Others" becomes wearing and a bit mournful. You long for a song like "It covers the hillside" or "Young Bride" to break it up with some exuberance. There is not enough colour or light and shade. Indeed "Bring Down" sounds like its straight out of the Steve Hackett "Teach yourself Genesis guitar lines" book and both "The Horn" and the title track are plain dull. This is partly due to the limitations and lack of nuance in Tim Smith's voice and the complete over reliance on him for all vocal duties. Indeed perhaps some of the other band members could occasionally take on a song to provide some variety? This can all be forgiven because of the final track "In the ground" which is probably the most folk tinged song on the album punctuated as it is by flutes and recorders but also reminds me for some reason of "Argus" era Wishbone Ash. Whatever the case it's a great ending.
Is it as good as "Trials"? My honest answer is no, but then not much is. In any case this an album that you will need to "live with" for a while to appreciate its full depth. Midlake are a class band who try something new in every album and draw inspiration from a bewildering range of sources. "Courage of others" is a brave, intriguing and sometimes flawed album. Midlake are a band prepared to change and take risks and we should treasure that.