Midlake is a band trapped by time. Critics and listeners alike believe they have the Denton, Texas, outfit's sound encapsulated. It's '70s folk-rock that conjures images of Fleetwood Mac's feuding along with Neil Young's Rustic, rounded out by spacey production, vintage guitar backed with keyboards and, of course, frontman Tom Smith's soaring tenor.
So just ask the boys in Midlake the forbidden music-journalist question: "So, who are your influences?" Hell, you won't need to ask 'em-they'll offer it up on their own.
"When people peg us as Fleetwood Mac and America mixed with Radiohead, they have every right to," offers Smith. "Those are our influences, and every band gets compared to somebody. Obviously, you will sound like whatever you are listening to, and that's just the truth. If you listened to Britney Spears for 14 hours a day and then tried and write a song like Radiohead, well then, good luck. It's next to impossible to be original."
Makes sense. In fact, Midlake's exemplary sophomore album, The Trials of Van Occupanther -which made more than a dozen 2006 top-10 lists-is a study in the clash between retro and modern rock. While the '80s seems to be the decade du jour, Midlake pride themselves on being an anomaly within the iTunes-dictated, MySpace-revolutionized music culture. They actually like the idea of "albums" (remember those, kids?).
"I don't know what else the point would be if you're not creating a great album," Smith says. "I don't see it any other way. I'm always striving to create an album that you can listen to in 20 years. You hope every song is meaningful to whomever it's growing on."
Most of what is Midlake-Smith, guitarist Eric Pulido, bassist Paul Alexander, drummer McKenzie Smith and keyboardist Eric Nichelson-met at the University of North Texas, where they studied and played jazz. Their initial rehearsals-under the horrendous moniker The Cornbread All-Stars-yielded a sound that Smith describes in hindsight as "a jazz-funk thing."
"We tried many things. We even had a female vocalist at one time. Even soul stuff, but I could tell that it wasn't our true love. We'd come home and we wouldn't want to listen to jazz. We'd want to put on OK Computer."
Until that point, Smith had been playing sax and hadn't even entertained the idea of singing. He says he did it only out of necessity. With the addition of Eric Pulido on lead guitar, the band's music began to take shape. Pulido, who had no jazz training, says Midlake's new musical direction suited him just fine and that the decision to focus on a more rock-centered sound was democratic.
"It was a conscious decision to have a more pure sound-putting away the synthesizers and picking up a guitar or playing the piano."
The band had some initial success with an EP and its 2004 debut, Bamnan and Silvercork , but it wasn't until Van Occupanther that they achieved a sound as big as their buzz. Songs like "Head Home" and "Young Bride" are, if more than just beautiful summations of the longing for something better, the sounds of a band that, after eight years together, has finally found a comfortable place to lay its head.
"Every time you create something, you learn from it," Smith says. "As a songwriter, I'm very critical. I'm very hard on myself, and I want to do better. It's been eight years to get to this point, and I wish we'd just started at this point. I feel we've finally found our voice."
Midlake plays with Ester Drang and Minipop at The Casbah on Thursday, March 1. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. $8. 619-232-HELL.