In the Russian visionary film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky's long, prismatic biopic of the great 15th-century icon painter Andrei Rublev, the monk Rublev strives to sustain the solitary, spiritual essence of his art in the face of an increasingly technological, repressive authoritarian regime. Typically, Tarkovsky favours achingly long, slow shots, which force the audience into adopting the calm, contemplative manner of the film's subject. For its implied criticism of the state, the film was banned for years in the Soviet Union, and was further butchered for its American release, excessive contemplation being hard to sell to a sensation-sated American audience of the Seventies.
Andrei Rublev did, however, more recently find an enthusiastic welcome in a small Texan university town called Denton (town motto: "North Of Ordinary"), where it became one of the favourite movies of Tim Smith, singer and songwriter with the band Midlake. It's easy to see why he had an affinity for its subject: in an era when bands are encouraged to focus on a single style and hone it through successive releases, Smith's dedication to his restless muse is a perverse hangover from a less commercially obsessed era.
If you buy a Midlake album expecting to hear something similar to a previous one, you're going to be disappointed. Each Midlake release has a pronounced character all of its own, which in the case of the new album. The Courage of Others involves slow, contemplative minor-key ruminations on mankind's damaging drift from a natural, earth-centred existence towards one dictated by commerce and technology, the songs couched in a rustic, roots-rock style heavily influenced by the Sixties British folk-rock of such as Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Jethro Tull and The Incredible String Band. The cover features the sombre, bearded Smith and bandmates in monkish robes among foliage, the picture mirrored to produce a symmetrical image reminiscent of a Rublev religious icon. All in all, it's probably the least pop-tastic album that will be released all year – and possibly the best.
Smith and his bandmates first came together towards the end of the last century, while studying jazz performance at a music college in Denton, Texas. At the time, he was playing saxophone, and the group started out doing standard jazz-funk-rock, complete with horn section and a female singer, hoping to emulate the likes of Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and Rufus with Chaka Khan.
"Then we played one gig at a coffee-shop, and realised this wasn't for us," explains Smith. "I wrote a song and played it for the guys, and they said, OK, why don't you sing until we find someone to be singer?"
Like Steely Dan, they never did find a different singer. But it's perhaps significant that Midlake was born out of a drastic sea-change in musical style, a recurrent feature of the band's progress ever since. Their 2001 debut, Bamnan and Slivercork, reflected the influence of Nineties indie-rockers such as Radiohead, Grandaddy and The Flaming Lips; its follow-up, The Trials of Van Occupanther, sounded more like the Seventies West Coast soft-rock of Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash; while The Courage of Others reaches back even further to Sixties folk-rock – a counter-chronological progress, due largely to Smith's unusual musical history.
"I got a really late start," he says. "I didn't grow up playing acoustic guitar, sitting around with my friends playing Beatles covers. I wasn't into rock, I was a teenager into jazz – and playing sax, all I listened to for 13 years was stuff like John Coltrane and Jan Garbarek. Then in my last semester of college, right before I met the guys, I was exposed to Radiohead. I hadn't heard Led Zeppelin yet, I hadn't heard Pink Floyd, and I'm like, 22 by this point! That's part of the reason our albums sound different – it took me a long time to catch up. I listened to OK Computer for a year and thought, Man, I need to put the saxophone down and pick up guitar! So when we made the first album, I hadn't heard Neil Young or Joni Mitchell or Fleetwood Mac, those influences which showed up on Van Occupanther. Same with this this album: I hadn't heard Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span or Pentangle when we made Van Occupanther, it was just two to three years ago when I was exposed to them."
They sold only a few copies of Bamnan, but thanks largely to Smith tapping into a fund of beautiful melodies, Van Occupanther became a cult hit after its release in 2006, its enigmatic cover photo of two oddly garbed characters, one wearing a panther mask, relaxing in the midst of an autumnal forest evoking the strange world of rustic hermit-scientists, bandits and hunters depicted in songs such as "Young Bride", "Head Home" and "Roscoe". Ironically, its bucolic tone derived partly from a yuppie clothes advert.
"I made a painting of these two characters, the ones on the front of the album, which I thought might become the album cover," Smith explains. "But I decided it needed something more realistic, so we went out and photographed the two guys instead. There was also this advert in a magazine for something like Polo, Ralph Lauren, of this woman wearing this equestrian gear, the riding boots and red velvet jacket – the stuff the masked guy on the album cover is wearing. I liked the way the picture made me feel, and I thought, I really want to make an album that sounds like this looks! That was a big part of creating the sound of that album. We had the name 'Van Occupanther' for a long time too, it came from a game we used to play, of introducing yourself with some ridiculous name. [As in Seinfeld's Art Vandelay] We made the panther mask from papier-mâché: we still have it, though we've run over it a couple of times so it's looking really bad. At one show, somebody stole the nose off it! So now it just has a duct-tape nose, it doesn't look the same."
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At the time, Van Occupanther's soft-rock sound, gorgeous harmonies and sense of yearning for a more rooted, pre-industrial age didn't resemble anything else around, which helped get Midlake noticed. Suddenly, they were a modest success, particularly in Britain and Europe. "Roscoe" was given a sleek remix by Beyond The Wizard's Sleeve, and Smith was invited to collaborate on a Chemical Brothers track, "The Pills Won't Help You Now". And they were able to tour in Europe, which suited Smith, with his taste for antiquity, just fine.
"I find everything more beautiful in the past, whether it's architecture, art, music or films," he admits. "I often feel they don't make things that way anymore. A lot of pop culture, with the advertisements, the hip-hop culture and all that, it doesn't make me feel good. I'm missing some kind of depth and richness to life – it's all too quick, too lacking in substance. When I think about music, I'm thinking of Wagner, Britten, Rachmaninov, and renaissance and medieval art – that's more what I draw on for inspiration, what makes me feel better about my surroundings. And when I sing about nature and earth and stuff, I'm not trying to save the planet, I just find it very beautiful, and I'm drawn to it."
Smith's affinity for nature and antiquity has deepened further since then, his misgivings about the direction of modern life casting a melancholy shadow over The Courage of Others. "Acts of Man" opens the album with him fretting about mankind causing "the ground to break open" and endanger living things. "Winter Dies" finds him exulting, "I used to feel all things around me stir", an epiphany made more explicit in "Rulers, Ruling All Things", where he claims "I stood in awe of the whole creation" and expresses his preference "to be left to my own ways". He comes closer to hermitude as "the joy has burned out" in "Bring Down", until by "The Horn" he seems utterly estranged and penitential: "I wear the wrongs of the common man/ Lying far from everyone and far from rest." But being in tune with the seasons, the concluding "In the Ground" finds his spirit thawing along with the frozen earth: "After long winter's gone/ Seems that all is well, all is well/ And the rose wakens now/ In the joyful air, in the sun."
The cyclical nature of life, he believes, is a crucial element of art and life. "You see that in so many poems," he says. "William Blake, any of the older poets, it's all very earth-centred and aware of the seasons."
Blake isn't the only poetic influence feeding into the new album, as "Core of Nature" is built around a pertinent couplet from Goethe, "Into the core of nature/No earthly mind can enter." "I don't know much about Goethe, I just had a book of his poems from the library," Smith admits. "A lot of times, I'll use poetry to start coming up with a melody, because I don't write the lyrics first, I always start with the music and then see what sounds right coming out of my mouth. Certain words suit my voice better than others, and those words can then create the germ of an idea for a song. But I can't come up with it out of thin air, so a lot of times, to come up with an idea for a melody, I'll sit at the piano or guitar with a book of poetry and start singing the words, then I'll go back and replace them with my own lines. But that line was just so great, I realised I was never going to top that."
The main difference between this album and its predecessors, he contends, is the large-scale shift from keyboards to (mostly acoustic) guitars, along with the widespread use of flute, and the fact that only one of the 11 songs is written in a major key, which accounts for the darker, melancholy mood. The musical changes were triggered by his introduction to the modal world of British folk-rock, where the tendrils of the past wrap around the present like ivy, shrouding its mostly man-made shape with age-old greenery. It was a serendipitous shift in taste, triggered by his purchase of an old Steeleye Span album for a dollar, purely because he liked the cover, then getting lured into investigating the likes of Fairport Convention and Pentangle. "It wasn't that I wanted to do something different on this album," he says, "but you fall in love with a different style, and you've got to get that into your sound, that's only natural. But we weren't that sort of a band yet, so it took a lot of time to get that sound into what we were doing."
For all that, he maintains that Midlake aren't slavishly copying past styles: "If you were to play this after, say, a Fairport Convention album, it wouldn't sound much like it." He's right, and it's not just because Midlake lack the female singer that was a central component of most British folk-rock outfits. Rather, the band's re-routing of those influences is more akin to the way that young British kids of the Sixties obsessed with Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker managed to take those influences and devise their own brand of R&B to create The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds and The Animals: not necessarily better or worse than the originals, just different.
'The Courage of Others' is out now on Bella Union Records
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