Perhaps it's easier to imagine the members of Midlake as cloaked druids performing secretive rituals than as a group of former jazz students from Texas.
It's certainly by design that the band's new record weaves its spell from ancient days, conjuring that same sense of elemental, shrouded powers at play that drives fantasy art. Midlake worked to craft The Courage of Others into an escape, the type of music that suggests it might literally cast some magic on the listener.
"If you think about humanity and where we are in 2010, and where we were in the last couple thousand years, fundamentally, we're the same beings, but there are things that have been lost," says bassist Paul Alexander. "That's one thing about the music—(we're) trying to make people think further back than their lifetime or the last 50 years ... like classical music will get you to do."
With mostly acoustic guitars and plenty of flute, The Courage of Others draws more on the British folk music of Nick Drake and Fairport Convention than on the 1970s Californian folk-rock sound of the band's breakthrough record, 2006's The Trials of Van Occupanther.
Midlake—Alexander, singer-guitarist Tim Smith, guitarists Eric Pulido and Eric Nichelson and drummer McKenzie Smith—toured solidly in support of Van Occupanther, an album well-received for its darkly organic sound, balanced by sunny harmonies. The single "Roscoe," which married off-kilter lyrics (again, rooted in a sense of timelessness) with a retro Fleetwood Mac vibe, was named the 90th-best song of the decade by Rolling Stone.
The band approached the new record with a willingness to take risks and a fervent desire to progress musically.
"One of the main things we were trying to achieve was just to make a better album. We were proud of Van Occupanther; we knew when we made it that we made the best album we could, but we weren't entirely satisfied," Alexander says. "Most of it initially was just trying to go beyond that.
"We had been touring Van Occupanther for about a year and a half, so we still had that in our heads. It wasn't like we just flipped a switch and had all the ideas for the next album. We had to play a bunch of different things and throw away a lot of them before figuring out which way we wanted to go. We had to experiment. It just takes time."
Midlake records and produces in the band's own studio in Denton, Texas, an invaluable factor in allowing for experimentation and growth. The title track, in fact, was the first song Midlake completed—and then they re-recorded the entire song from scratch at the end of the process.
"If you want to deliberate a little bit over your arrangements, and have the ability to listen back and make new decisions on the same song, that's a luxury. You'd spend a fortune in a regular studio to do that," Alexander says. "Recording is an aid in being creative. We own our own studio, so we can keep trying."
Smith has an imaginative reach lyrically, dealing in images of deep and ancient forests with an almost worshipful reverence for nature.
The first song, "Acts of Man," is an apt tone-setter for The Courage of Others: "When all newness of gold travels far from where it had once been / born like the Earth over years / And when the acts of man cause the ground to break open / Oh, let me inside, let me inside, not to wait."
"Core of Nature" runs in a similar vein, finding a reverent beauty in sadness, approaching the end of life almost like one would a sunset: "I will let the sound of these woods that I've known sink into blood and to bone / I'll remain no more than is required of me, until the spirit is gone."
"We have a vision of what we're trying to achieve," Alexander says. "This pre-Baroque Western world is what we were imagining, trying to make some music that lulls you into that mindset."
The record's cover is another element in achieving the band's goal. Taking inspiration from the 1966 Andrei Tarkovsky film about Andrei Rublev, a 15th-century Russian monk and painter, band members pose in robes amid lush vines. The image is mirrored about the middle, creating a still and eerie symmetry.
"Tarkovsky made a film that really brought the feeling, at least for me when I watch it, of being transported to another time," Alexander says. "I don't know that we're going after trying to mimic it, but we liked what he did in making the viewer feel this other time period."
Midlake began about a decade ago, formed by Smith, a trained saxophonist, and friends in the University of North Texas music program. The band members' jazz roots faded quickly, though, as Alexander explains: "We realized that there was nothing we could do for jazz. Jazz had its peak by people who were far greater than we would ever be. It would be dumb to keep trying it."
Coming to rock and folk music at a relatively late age, and with well-formed musical chops, the band began by chasing an unorthodox muse. The first Midlake recording, the 2001 EP Milkmaid Grand Army, and 2004's debut LP, Bamnan and Slivercork, were keyboard-heavy, mildly electronic albums that earned the band comparisons (though not always favorable) to Radiohead, the Flaming Lips and Grandaddy.
The band's evolution has continued, driven by a quest to make music that's distinctly Midlake.
"In 2010, there's been a whole lot of stuff that's been recorded now, and there are a lot of terrific bands. So when you pick up your instrument and play something, there's a chance it's going to sound derivative or closely associated with something else," Alexander says. "It's really hard in this saturated period, in this culture and in art to really be distinctive.
"We want to develop as musicians (and) do some different things with our playing that we hadn't before. And we're always trying to make the best album we can. If at the end of the day, we record something, and we like the song—we like how it sounds, and it's something we would listen to as musicians—that's the way it's going to be."