Just the opening half-minute of "Roscoe," the lead track on Midlake's sophomore album The Trials Of Van Occupanther, generates the kind of knowingly resigned, darkly ritualistic mood that was all over FM radio in the mid-to-late-'70s, in the era of Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, and Dire Straits. The mellifluous, murmuring double-tracked croon of bandleader Tim Smith spirals through echoing piano, muffled drums, and quietly slashing electric guitars, all so commanding that there's no better way to react to it than to find a window to stare through—preferably one facing a grove of trees, swaying in an autumn wind. It's the kind of song worth stopping everything for.
Then again, so is "Bandits," which marries an archaic-sounding melody to humming organ and rippling piano, and "Head Home," which builds to a dramatic guitar solo that sounds like a tin shack beset by storms, and "Van Occupanther," a steady piano march leavened by the sound of a Mellotron and Smith cautioning, "I must be careful now in my steps." With The Trials Of Van Occupanther, Midlake has built a fragile fantasy world out of pieces of American history, the resonant sounds of churches and small-town music halls, and a basic sense of compassion. Songs like "Young Bride" and "Branches" practically tremble, as they pulse along on steady keyboards and woven-silk guitar, keeping Smith braced while he sings lines like, "It's hard for me, but I'm trying."
Van Occupanther's spell finally breaks a little more than halfway through its 11 tracks, when the songs begin to feel more fussed-over and conceptual and less organic, but the warmth never fades. When Midlake reaches the album's brief, moving conclusion, "You Never Arrived," it's earned the pangs of recognition it'll get from those listeners who grew up with music seeping into the mystery-infatuated compartments of their subconsciouses.