Midlake doesn't sound like your typical Texas band, but then most acts from Denton don't. Named "Best Music Scene" by Paste magazine in 2008, the quirky little North Texas town is reportedly home to 1½ musical acts per square mile. It also boasts the largest music school in the country, and has been the proving ground for artists like Norah Jones, Brave Combo and, of course, Little Jack Melody & His Young Turks.
As the Paste story goes on to suggest, the biggest thing out of Denton these days is Midlake, whose newly released third album, The Courage of Others, has already been hailed as "monumental" by NME, "exquisitely constructed, intricately layered and beautifully played" by MOJO, and "a gentle masterwork" by NPR. Less acronymous media like the band too, particularly over in the U.K., which birthed a lot of the folk-rock and early prog artists the five music-school dropouts are currently obsessed with.
Midlake's Paul Alexander says he and his bandmates listened to a lot of John Renbourne, Jimmie Spheeris and King Crimson during the more than three years leading up to their eagerly awaited release.
"I think one reason why we're so drawn to the '70s is that it's sort of the last time we had a big crossroads — where music could have gone in a lot of different directions.
"It went to the '80s," mourns Alexander, "but there's other places it could have gone. And I think that's one of the reasons why we're so stuck there. It's not because we want to go there, it's just that we're hunting for those other paths, you know?"
Wake of the crimson king
Even though Midlake doesn't sound particularly mired in the past — the band's music is compared to Fleet Foxes as often as it is to Pentangle — you can still hear distant echoes of Fairport Convention's "Sloth" or King Crimson's first two albums in exceptionally melodic tracks like "Small Mountain" and "Acts of Man." Which makes sense, given Alexander's characterization of the album as "a bit of a lament about mankind's plight.
"There's a King Crimson album called In the Wake of Poseidon that, from a recording standpoint, has some of the best-sounding stuff that was ever recorded," says the bassist, who co-produced The Courage of Others with Midlake guitarist Eric Pulido. "It really captured something very pure to me, in the way the instruments come through — the way the drums and the voice sound — and the space in the recording that you just don't hear in modern recordings. And for me, that was a huge reference point that I thought was just the holy grail of sound."
Some may feel it's also a step up from the more Fleetwood Mac vibe that haunted some of the group's earlier work. The newfound depth and resonance of Tim Smith's baritone reflects an equivalent growth in the band's sound, which is noticeably slower and more mournful this time out.
In retrospect, the songs on Midlake's new album were "painstaking to develop," notes Alexander.
"We recorded for about a year before we got anything that we were gonna keep, and we wound up deleting almost everything from that first year. That was probably an album's worth of material that kind of just got thrown away, which is a common thing for us. During our entire history, we've always deleted more than we've kept."
Midlake's "entire history" goes back a decade, even though the band didn't release its first album until 2004's Bamnan and Slivercork. Like its successors, the record was released on Bella Union, a British indie label owned by the Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie.
The band members' paths first converged while they were attending the University of North Texas College of Music, where Alexander and fellow student Norah Jones played together in a jazz trio: "But she wasn't singing, she was just playing piano," he says of the future hitmaker. "We were all friends in college, and I didn't even know that she sang."
"Everyone I know who has a career in music got out of there," says Alexander, noting the ongoing influx of younger students who "don't understand that they're being taught to turn music into algebra."
"After a few years of that, everyone drops out. And then you're in Denton, which is kind of like the mental hospital, I mean, you can't leave the town. It's a good place to live, it's cheap, and you can be a musician without having to spend your whole life working to pay the rent."
And while Midlake still has its esoteric strains — the band is currently touring as a seven-piece complete with flute and harpsichord — those early jazz inclinations were abandoned after a brief post-college period of Miles Davis-style experimentation.
"It sort of dawns on you that you need to forget about those lineages," says Alexander. "They're beautiful and you have to respect them, but we don't exist in them. So we just have to start making the best music we can, and it took a while for us to realize that."