Say that there’s a band you’ve heard of but never heard. They’re buzzing hard now, coming off opening slots for Pearl Jam and Neil Young and hitting Later with Jools Holland, and so on. They’re making a local stop soon, and the show’s spare, imagistic poster is so begrudging with functional content that it all but screams that this is a band that needs no fluff verbiage and trumped-up bona fides. You are supposed to know them, and they are under no obligation to say much about themselves.
You need to introduce yourself, and, your time being the limited commodity that it is, you need to find the best angle into the heart of their work. Do you start with their most recent, with the what-have-you-done-for me-lately? Or do you go back to Square One, and if so, is it absolute Square One (teenage self-releases) or first-label Square One? Or do you pay a visit to Allmusic.com to find the consensus critical favorite: the one that the present guesses that the future will like best?
This ascendant band, Midlake, is playing an acoustic show at BSP on Friday, August 1. I started with the fourth and most recent record, Antiphon (ATO Records, 2013). Unbeknownst to me at the time, Antiphon is Midlake’s first album since lead singer and principal songwriter Tim Smith left the band, so it is perforce atypical, new ground. With its album-opening title track, it comes on like a stormy, gritty/moody indie-rock album in this neo-psychedelic age, sharing many traits with what we call post-rock: offset, non-traditional drum grooves à la Radiohead or the National, an emphasis on disturbed and distant sonics and the democratic demotion of guitars and lead vocals in the mix – a leveled playing field. What guitar solos there are tend toward the noisy, reverberant and dissonant squalling kind that has been thrilling college kids for a solid 20 years.
But beneath the moody, of-the-moment production vibe, Clever John hears something else. He hears distinct traces of British progressive folk and Renaissance minstrelsy in Antiphon’s shapely, antiquated melodies and its high language, a large-hall, muted mysticism that one might compare with the great British folk/rock bands of the ’70s or with Fleet Foxes (but less Appalachian) or with Jesca Hoop’s earthy/witchy (and wonderful) second album, Hunting My Dress. Clever John now has his story: Atmospheric indie guitar rock with a veiled devotion to the mystic folk music of the Isles.
Then Clever John listened to the older Midlake albums, all of which are precisely mysterious, foggy British folk-rock to a tee, complete with Pentanglelike fingerpicking and some pastoral flute as the one non-string accent. Antiphon is – by far – Midlake’s least folk and least retro-sounding record: a bold step toward the present. Clever John is glad that he listened to the back catalogue before writing this article.
When Midlake appears at BSP, they will be playing acoustic full band. This should not serve as a dissuasion. For 75 percent of their already-storied career, this bearded Texas band has been a more-or-less acoustic-flavored thing. They are masters of organic ambiance, interlocking beds of guitar arpeggios, whisper-soft stacked harmonies and rolling underground rhythms. What they will be doing at BSP is quite possibly the thing that they do very best: conjuring fog, oceans, spirits and mythic undertow, without delay pedals and synthesizers.
Midlake with Elijah & the Moon, Friday, August 1, 8 p.m., $15/$18, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston, tickets at Outdated in Kingston, Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz, Darkside Records in Poughkeepsie & Woodstock Music Shop; visit www.bspkingston.com.