Midlake's third album has the arch, moody insistence that tends to galvanize a love-hate relationship. The album is deeply inspired by the burbling British folk of Pentangle and the Renaissance, channeling stately webs of acoustic guitar enriched with a medieval flavor (notable in the trilling organs and flutes), all expressed in an erect art-rock demeanor. The centrality of vocals in the mix and the dour severity of their delivery also suggest the early efforts of the Moody Blues.
If not wholly original, it's a striking bit of nostalgia unlike anything anyone else has recently attempted in the pop-rock arena. It follows their 2006 breakthrough, The Trials of Van Occupanther, whose blend of psychedelic pop and languid '70s soft rock earned plenty of accolades. Although obviously consistent with the era and showcasing a similar penchant for sentimental, well-wrought arrangements, there was little there to suggest this current direction. Of course, the band has always been nomadic stylistically; its 2004 debut LP, Bamnan and Silvercork, was more informed by Grandaddy and Neutral Milk Hotel.
Fresh from the success of Van Occupanther, the band set about recording The Courage of Others in its new studio and got lost in the rabbit hole, working daily 9-to-5 (and then later) for months, sweating the details and learning this entirely new, acoustic-driven style. In the process the group threw away an entire album of material, hence its slaved-over sterility that's intertwined with gilded laconic grace.
The album works very much as a whole, feeling less like a batch of individual songs than a unified suite. A couple tracks, however, do stand out, including the undulating paean to individuality and self-determination in "Rulers, Ruling All Things," as well as the title track, the latter a shadowy but hopeful meditation on the difficulty of change. The rarified air of The Courage of Others' ensures it's an acquired taste — but that hardly diminishes its beauty or craft. It simply means the doors may not open for everyone.
Midlake plays Saturday, May 22, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7665. With John Grant & Jason Lytle.
Chris Parker writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.