Midlake, Ulu, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The cult of Midlake has been steadily growing through the year, picking up converts from The Flaming Lips to Beck. This popularity may be because the second album by this Texan band, The Trials of Van Occupanther, contains a densely populated world of its own like few others in rock, a sort of sealed system that repays repeated visits.

All its songs suggest a pastoral past, a mythic place of refuge from the horrors of the world, evoking both the woodland existence of America's first settlers, and the communal dreams of Californian hippies. Musically, the latter influence predominates, Midlake being soaked in soft Seventies rock, especially that of Neil Young at his most wistful. All of this springs from the band's singer-songwriter, Tim Smith, a man in exile from his own time, who has transmuted his private fears into a comforting musical creation.

Converting this into a successful stage show is, however, a little more problematic. Smith is hunkered down so low at his keyboard it is as if he wants to vanish from sight, and there is little charisma from his bandmates, either. Midlake must be aware of this, compensating by back-projecting videos. With candlelit chessboards, young girls crawling into cubbyholes, gold silhouettes eviscerated by flames, Balkan war comics and Richard Burton as Wagner, these tell the stories of the songs, and are part of the band's art. But, as the muted crowd spend more time staring at the screen than at Midlake, you have to conclude that something is out of balance.

The band have been touring Van Occupanther all year, driving home its success, so should be at a performing peak. The soft Seventies hum of Smith's keyboard, which provides synth ripples and plunging piano riffs, is a sinuous, reassuring presence, and they are soon settling into "Young Bride", the sort of frontier narrative of love and loneliness that makes them special. First album Bamnan and Silvercork is dipped into, too, for "Balloon Maker", adorned with floating harmonies. "Roscoe", the single that has let Midlake creep onto the radio, is easily the peak of both their harmonic and songwriting art, sung with real yearning, driven on by guitars.

It is not quite enough, however. If you work at giving yourself over to these three still men on the stage, you may find the beauty and meaning their songs contain, but they are so sedentary that their music often falls flat, sparking little fervour. The Midlake cult remains a private affair.