Revivals of long-gone genres are nothing unexpected. Even awkward, pretentious prog rock emerged from its attic hiding place some time ago, so it’s no surprise that its smoother 70’s sibling—lavishly produced, folk-inflected soft rock—is making a reappearance. The remarkable thing is that there’s a great album heralding that return, one that steers clear of ironic winking and slavish impersonation and instead parlays love for the music of an earlier era into a heartfelt and absorbing work of art.
Midlake is a quintet from the talent-incubator town of Denton, Tex. Their newly released sophomore LP, The Trials of Van Occupanther (Bella Union), achieves a sophisticated balance of past and present. It boasts the kind of serious songwriting, arranging and instrumental chops that hark back to the heyday of the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac and Crosby, Stills & Nash—a mellow moment before punk made proficiency taboo. The album is full of lush, resonant acoustic guitars and warmly overdriven electrics, lilting pianos and vintage keyboards, soaring vocal melodies paired with honeyed harmony parts and orchestral touches.
Yet it never succumbs to the slickness or blandness that can plague the genre. That’s probably because the band adopted the indie-rock approach, playing virtually all of the instruments and producing the album themselves. With its complex arrangements and dense layers of overdubs, The Trials of Van Occupanther has a rich, organic ensemble feel.
Lead singer and songwriter Tim Smith’s supple, mellifluous tenor could easily be exploited for operatic gestures, but he’s careful not to hog the spotlight. There are wailing, honest-to-goodness, classic-rock drum fills and guitar solos, most notably in the infectious “Head Home,” but they fall in all the right places, supporting rather than overwhelming the songs. It all adds up to a generous rush of feeling, conjuring up a pleasant (sometimes gloomy) place to get lost.
Lyrically, it’s an eccentric vision. Mr. Smith evokes an invented past much more distant than the Me Decade, painting a landscape of hillsides and forests populated by villagers and hunters. “Roscoe,” the propulsive and hypnotic lead track, imagines rural life at the end of the 19th century; the first verse is about mountaineers traveling far to fix someone’s leaking roof (an odd motif that reoccurs later in the album).
Like many of the songs, “Bandits” doesn’t follow an easily identifiable verse-chorus structure, but it’s an immediately poignant and engaging mid-tempo ballad. Mr. Smith asks, “Did you ever want to roam around with bandits, / To see many places and hide in ditches?” Then he tempers that romantic image of the carefree outsider, singing, “It’s not always easy,” before invoking the need to find shelter when the winter comes.
These are fairy tales minus the happy ending (most just trail off without concluding at all). In “Van Occupanther,” the title character is a shy scientist who’s shunned by his neighbors. He seems on the brink of revealing an important discovery, but instead cries out (to gorgeous harmonies), “Let me not be too consumed with this world.” And in “Chasing After Deer,” an affectingly artless description of tragic, unrequited love, a deer, frightened of a pursuer who’s already given up the chase, runs headlong off a cliff into the sea. It’s that kind of mixed emotion—a compound of sadness and beauty—that Midlake captures on this quietly stunning record.
LIKE JOHNNY CASH’S FIFTH VOLUME OF THE American series, another of this year’s finest albums, Ali Farka Touré’s Savane, was released posthumously (Touré, who was in his late 60’s, died in March). But if Cash’s last record is a collection of casket lullabies, the Malian guitarist’s final songs have a teeming lushness—a lively, organic beauty—that makes it difficult to imagine that he was suffering from bone cancer when he recorded them.
Touré’s crystalline guitar buoys his music, even on gluey, hot-sun hymns like “Ledi Coumbe,” or on the funereal title track. But nothing here floats by sadly: These songs knead together that pristine guitar with heart-grabbing harmonies, slender instrumental echo and bucolic percussion. This is an album of pure molasses melody. It’s intoxicating because of its wide landscape: The panorama created by Touré and his collaborators is verdant yet dignified and demure. Its yogic reiterations evoke the splendor of Lee (Scratch) Perry’s dub reggae, yet this album matches the dreamy lilt of dub without the nuisance of nonstop reverb or tyrannical bass lines.
Not a single note here oversteps its bounds, even when the tracks add a second guitar—or a choir of wiry n’goni lutes. By filling the spaces behind and beneath one another, these musicians build up limited alternations on slow themes into electric crescendos.
Touré has been memorialized as “the Bluesman of Africa”—but that nickname backwardly confuses which hemisphere the genre’s roots grew in. Savane is not the stuff of wannabe Delta barroom blues, and it’s not hard to hear why.
Touré is best known for 1994’s Talking Timbuktu, his Desert Island Disc–worthy collaboration with Ry Cooder, the Californian slide-guitar divinity. Like Mr. Cooder’s more popular international collaborations with Buena Vista Social Club, Timbuktu is immediately likeable for its swaggeringly pretty hooks.
The prettiness of Savane is much less important than its lastingly beautiful craftwork: The caramelized growl of Little George Sueref’s harmonica on the opener, “Erdi,” melts into the quintuplet vocal harmonies of “Machengoidi” and “Soko Yhinka”; vintage James Brown bandleader Pee Wee Ellis plays a late-night barfly tenor sax on “Beto” to match the translucent flute of “Banga”; on “N’Jarou”, the album’s last and most magnetic track, Touré’s stately acoustic soloing hypnotizes the brass and African lutes beneath it.
His guitar—sometimes a crisp acoustic, sometimes a crisper electric—has often done the talking for him. But Touré’s languid charcoal vocals on Savane are a weighty addition. Though the lyrics are sung in Malian dialect, with a few gushes of French, only jealous Anglophones will be disappointed. The vocals are so melodious and percussive that it’s a pleasure listening to them merely as abstract expressions of emotion. At their core, Touré’s velvety moans and elderly grumbles are never unintelligible. Muddiness has never sounded clearer.
His singing is always eloquent, but the flickers of spoken incantation on “N’Jarou” are supreme. These vocals dance above an ebullient seven-note guitar riff, which eventually relaxes into free-flowing improvisation. Contrasted against the airy, paced breaths of Pee Wee Ellis’ tenor saxophone, the alternating outbursts of voice and guitar are cataclysmic.
To insist that any such piece of music has its own inherently global and globalizing voice is the stuff of colonialist choir teachers: Touré’s music isn’t fratty or gleeful enough to be universal. Nonetheless, he reportedly sang in all three dialects of northern Mali as a gesture of unity.
There’s something in Savane’s transcendent Malian songs that demands hyperbole: Its quiet jangle blossoms into pure elegance, getting richer and lovelier as it rolls along.
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