Midlake and Sarah Jaffe at Schubas


The Denton, Texas, band Midlake has pulled off a rare feat — losing its primary singer-songwriter (Tim Smith) and emerging with a strong new album (Antiphon). Playing Thursday night (Dec. 5) at Schubas, Midlake also proved that it can still play the music from its earlier albums just fine. Guitarist Eric Pulido has taken over as Midlake’s new lead singer, and his vocal style isn’t too far removed from Smith’s. His harmonies — and the singing by the rest of Midlake’s virtuosic players — were always part of what makes this artsy folk rock band’s sophisticated, haunting music so special.

During Thursday’s show, Midlake played several of the new Antiphon songs, but it didn’t shy away from the old material, even playing the early song “Kingfish Pies” (from the 2004 album Bamnan and Silvercork) — the weird little anthem that attracted my attention to Midlake in the first place. And of course, Midlake performed key tracks from 2010’s The Courage of Others and 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther, the album that stands as its masterpiece. Flute melodies, guitar arpeggios and vocal harmonies meshed into enchanting forest folk music and soaring, powerful rock.

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The opening act was another artist from Denton, singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe, who was accompanied by Midlake drummer McKenzie Smith (who also produced her recent songs, “Satire” and “Defense”). Turning up the volume on her electric guitar, Jaffe pushed her usually mellow songs toward a more hard-edged sound as the set progressed.

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Midlake: Bamnan and Silvercork

Overlooked CD of 2004? It may be Bamnan and Silvercork by Midlake. It placed at No. 570 in the Pazz & Jop Poll, but I’ll venture a guess that its would have ranked higher if more people had heard it. Yet another band from that font of musical creativy known as Denton, Texas, Midlake is from the same school of high-voiced modern art-rock grandeur as Grandaddy, Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips.
This slightly lo-fi but highly listenable rock opera is set in some mythical place ruled authority figures known as “Monicle Men.” The good guys are trying to escape in baloons and coping with the unpleasant work conditions in the particle-separation room, which make it difficult for them to bake “kingfish pies.” The story, such as it is, reminds me of “Yellow Submarine” (the movie, not the song) and that British TV show “The Prisoner.” The most compelling songs are “They Cannot Let It Expand” (which repeats the title line over and over), “Kingfish Pies” and “Mopper’s Medley,” but there are many catchy tunes here, and the whimsical worldview gives it the appeal of a good puzzle.