For the Sake of Bethel Woods
3 out of 5 stars
The music history landscape is littered with once-successful bands who, after losing their lead singer and/or songwriter, tried to continue with diminishing, or worse, results. Some notable exceptions (Genesis after Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd post-Syd Barrett, and Roger Waters) notwithstanding, the history does not balance on the favorable side.
Denton, Texas’ Midlake have dodged that bullet. They decided to soldier on after lead singer/primary songwriter Tim Smith left a group he all but led after The Courage of Others in 2010. They not only bounced back with Antiphonin 2013 as guitarist Eric Pulido assumed lead singer status and two new members were incorporated, but continued in a vein respecting and building on their indie credibility while pushing into more oblique, somewhat progressive, territory.
Along comes this much delayed fifth studio set proving that any doubts about the quintet’s future can be dismissed.
The outfit’s once folksy, bucolic approach has gradually shifted to an occasionally spacey, always pensive, and often atmospheric sound. Lyrics are typically vague and inscrutable but, as the disc’s title implies (Bethel Woods is the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival), the loss of innocence and philosophical purity over the decades dominates the concept.
The subtle vibe hovers with only intermittent glimpses of choruses/bridges/riffs/melodies. The material is co-credited to all five members with music reflecting that communal spirit. Led by Pulido’s breathy vocals, the album sticks with a balanced, wistful mood somewhere between atmospheric rock and rust-colored folk. A recurrent nod to understated funk and sporadic prog influences sauté in unassuming psychedelia.
It takes a few spins for the tunes to register as some seem more like provocative set pieces than songs. But once they do, the thoughtful lyrics and sometimes diffuse sonics kick in.
Between the concepts and soundscape, there is plenty to chew on. The professionalism and classy production (by John Congleton) create Midlake’s sense of camaraderie, mystery, and imagination. It’s an impressive return for a band many assumed might not reappear.
Photo Credit: Barbara FG