Album Review

Midlake – For The Sake Of Bethel Woods: Album Review

Tapping into the ideals of a more optimistic era – Midlake make their overdue return.

Release Date:  18th March 2022

Label: Bella Union

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Digital

It’s been a long time since we last heard from Midlake – over eight years, in fact – but, having spent their lockdown time productively, creatively and collaboratively, they’re back – with their fifth album, their first since the acclaimed Antiphon in 2013.  Of course, none of the band members have been idle during that hiatus; there have been solo albums from flautist/keyboardist Jesse Chandler and vocalist/guitarist Eric Pulido to fill the gap, Pulido was also there amongst the revelers at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday and, perhaps most visibly, the band were key movers in the BNQT “Indie Supergroup” project that also involved Fran Healy, Alex Kapranos, Ben Bridwell and Jason Lytle.

Midlake have, of course, undergone numerous changes since they came together at the University of North Texas College of Music back in 1999.  In addition to the aforementioned Jesse Chandler and Eric Pulido, the band’s current lineup is completed by McKenzie Smith (drums), Eric Nichelson (guitar) and Joey McClellan (bass).  They released their first album, Bamnan and Silvercork back in 2004 and, in the intervening years, their music has ticked just about every box going, from Laurel Canyon influenced folk, via the psych-folk normally associated with the likes of Trees and Comus and classic folk/rock  Along the way, it drafted in layers of 60s psychedelia and alighted for a while in the middle of a thriving patch of 80s electronica.  And, on For The Sake of Bethel Woods, each of those influences are present in abundance.

For the band, For The Sake Of Bethel Woods represents a “desire to commune with the past and connect with the present,” an intention made clear in the cover art, the album’s title and in the subject matter of the majority of the songs on the album.  Let me elaborate…  The cover is a photograph of Jesse Chandler’s late father (he passed away in 2018) taken during John Sebastian’s impromptu set at the Woodstock Festival.  Jesse’s father was 16 years old at the time.  Bethel Woods was, of course, the location for the seminal Woodstock Festival in 1969 (it’s now the site of The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts) and the area holds a particular significance for Chandler – in addition to his father’s attendance at the festival, his family relocated to the town of Woodstock in 1981.  Chandler was raised there and he would accompany his father on pilgrimages back to the site of the great festival.  In keeping with that concept of worthy nostalgia, For The Sake of Bethel Woods is riddled with sentiments of lost innocence and thwarted optimism but, happily, it also finds ways, to reconnect with the spirit of those days to inject a new optimism into the here and now.

And that re-engagement with the Woodstock spirit is evident from the outset in the album’s opening track, the short-but-sweet Commune.  That re-engagement is probed further in Bethel Woods, an authentic chunk of 60s West Coast psychedelia, complete with frantically shuffling drums, droning flute and tinkly piano.  The agenda of reconnection with the ideals of the Woodstock generation is set out clearly in the song’s opening couplet: “I could get rid of it all for the Bethel Wood/ To a time and place where peacefulness once stood” and the dreamy West Coast vibe is, if anything, enhanced by Jesse’s synth solo – a visitor from a later, more cynical, era.

A scattered guitar/keyboard pattern introduces the jazzy, spacy, Glistening.  This is still psychedelia, but here, it’s the psychedelic voyages of the next generation.  The theme is noodly – repetitive almost – until the song transforms into a widescreen soundscape, full of soaring keyboard motifs.  That soundscape dwindles into a space-rock segue to take us into the lysergic Exile, another song that resurrects the halcyon days of 1967 San Francisco.  A thudding, persistent drumbeat provides the drive, whilst twangy guitars and an insistent keyboard lick blend fluidly with Eric P’s mixed-back vocal.

The prog/folk Feast Of Carrion is, perhaps, my favourite track on the album.  The late 60s sentiment is retained, but this time, the feeling is pastoral, rather than psychedelic.  Jesse plays a delightful descending piano lick and some wonderful flute parts and the harmony vocals are sublime.

The heartfelt, deeply personal Noble is, without doubt, the album’s most thought-provoking song.  It’s inspired by drummer McKenzie’s infant son, who was born with the rare brain disorder, Semi-Lobar Holoprosencephaly.  Eric P, who wrote the song in Noble’s honour, explains: “I wrote the song from [McKenzie’s] perspective… [to articulate] his expression to me of how he had been feeling towards his son.  And then, among the lament of his condition, it’s also embracing this child, who has only joy.  Noble doesn’t know that he has a condition, he just loves life, and smiles, and is so innocent and perfect in so many ways.”  As befits the song’s subject matter, Noble is the album’s longest track and Eric’s vocal is soft, intimate, sympathetic and respectful.  The backing is discrete, almost ambient, dominated by an intricate drumbeat and dreamy keyboard.

In contrast, things get almost funky with Gone, a song built around a solid, clanky, 4/4 bassline and thudding drums and peppered with deep space keyboard utterings that almost dominate Eric’s whispered vocals.  The drum/bass backing starts hesitantly but becomes more and more urgent and insistent as the song progresses. 

The album’s press release explains that the quasi-orchestral Meanwhile – another of the album’s standout tracks – “Draws inspiration from what happened when Midlake paused after Antiphon, developing universal resonance as a song about the beautiful growths that can emerge from the cracks and gaps between things.”  It’s a pleasant, poppy number that recalls OMD at the height of their powers, and it’s highlighted by a wonderful wha-wha keyboard solo from Jesse.

We stay in the 1980s for the funky Dawning.  Joey’s bass provides the drive and Jesse’s keyboard the sweet sprinklings, before the album returns to the theme of lost innocence with The End – a tasty slice of 70s prog, right down to the way that the keyboard, bass and drums interweave.  It even comes complete with phasing effects on the vocals, and it’s excellent!

In a way, the various stylings of psychedelia, prog, folk and electronica all come together for the album’s closing track, Of Desire.  A slight influence of Pink Floyd’s pastoral musings is detectable until the song heads into its anthemic crescendo before ending with a soft guitar lick that seems to sing the immortal phrase, “That’s all folks!”

In a time of greed, mistrust, and overt cynicism it’s refreshing to hear an album that seeks to tap the philosophies of an innocent and optimistic era and to use the lessons of that era to reset.  And Midlake deserves thanks and congratulations for being brave enough to do just that.

And – for those of our readers who can’t actually believe that Midlake are back amongst us, here’s the proof. They’ll be touring Europe during March and April, with half a dozen shows scheduled around the UK and Ireland. Full details of the tour can be found here.

Watch the official video to Bethel Woods – a track from the album – here:

Midlake Online: Website/ Twitter/ Instagram/ YouTube

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