Continuing the trend of downsizing their sound for a more intimate approach (yes, even more than The Trials of Van Occupanther), Midlake's third and latest opus, The Courage of Others, is a largely acoustic guitar and hushed vocal affair, save for the interwoven flute or percussion here and there. As low-key as the album is, it's about as notable that The Courage of Others sounds almost like a timepiece; it has a very early seventies folk air to it, yet with a modernized feel. The problem is that The Courage of Others is not particularly original or even memorable.
What The Courage of Others really lacks is compelling melodies. There are of course a few exceptions, like the opening Acts of Man, but immediately after it starts dragging on, bathing in its own gloom, and not going anywhere. The guitar picking and other instrumentation really is quite good, even clever in how the random flute or clean electric parts are placed, but none of it is exactly of virtuoso status either, and without good hooks or melodies, there isn't a whole lot to keep one's interest. Midlake has excelled with establishing a mood, but little more. There are moments that catch the ear, but just that - moments. In the Ground begins with promise, then crumbles within seconds. Then it begins building up and starting to sound good, until it fizzles out AGAIN and returns to sounding exactly like the rest of the record.
On the rare occasion that the melodies aren't run of the mill, they're bombastic and overdramatic. Bring Down sounds a lot like Radiohead's Exit Music (For a Film), except with such excess that the song sounds too overwrought to be very enjoyable, or even relatable. Then, after that comes The Horn, which climaxes so prematurely (eep) that it not only feels like an extension of the previous song, but could well be Bring Down's sequel! The intro also sounds much like Exit Music's outro, which explains why the two go together so well. And for all the music's melodrama, vocalist Tim Smith's monotonous drawl couldn't possibly sound more bored and detached. Many singers have used this type of understated vocal to spectacular effect; Nick Drake, Lou Barlow, Mark Kozelek, Elliott Smith... but here, it's just not happening.
Keep in mind that none of this is intended to put down the band. Their earlier work suffered from the same contrivances, but the music they wrote was good enough to make them negligible. The influences are incredibly obvious on their full length debut, Bamnan and Silvercork, as well as Trials, but the songs were very well put together, and more importantly, Tim Smith's downhearted vocals actually sounded good. After taking four years to follow up Trials, they release twelve run of the mill indie folk songs, that instrumentation withstanding, show a fraction of the heart that their previous albums did.
Midlake is not a bad band by any stretch of the imagination, but they just don't stand out. After showing minimal progression over a rather unprolific decade, it's difficult to see them as essentially anything but "not bad." The fact is that Midlake, particularly on The Courage of Others, aren't doing anything new. Their sound been done better, and it will be done better again. In an era where the indie folk genre is flourishing with the likes of Bon Iver, Great Lake Swimmers, Fleet Foxes, and so on and so forth, being average is just not enough.