Sunday, December 22, 2013

Midlake / Israel Nash - Live 2013.12.20 The Parish, Austin, Texas

I knew almost nothing about these bands going into the show, but a good friend gave the headliner a strong recommendation and I decided to give it a go.

Artist: Midlake
Venue: The Parish
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: December 20, 2013
Opening Act: Israel Nash

Israel Nash was apparently born in Missouri but moved to New York City to begin his recording career, only to move outside of Austin in the last few years. While nominally a solo artist, he was backed by four additional musicians. They played music that felt quite rootsy, like it could have been Americana or country, except that there was a slightly deeper edge to it. At first, it seemed like they were consistently opting for the slow burn, but gradually they started playing songs with a little more dynamic energy.

At the time I saw them, it was unclear if the musicians behind the singer were true bandmembers or "just" backing musicians. The thing is, while Nash is a good performer, I didn't find the songs themselves all that interesting, but I did find the musicianship of the backing members to be quite good. In particular, the lead guitarist continually blew me away. He started out playing his parts drenched in my favorite style of a blend of reverb/delay/swell effects, straight from the Chameleons' songbook, but as the set progressed, he began playing more showy, intricate riffs. Since he'd already won me over by his mastery of sound construction, I was surprised to find myself easily impressed by the technical showmanship.

Another musician started out with an electric guitar, doing absolutely nothing interesting. But he quickly moved to a pedal steel, where he showed his true talents. I don't know if this is the credit of the sound mixers at the venue or the band themselves, but the blend of the instruments was perfect. Nash's rhythm guitar was low in the mix; the bass was underneath but prominent; the pedal steel made a pleasant field just above the rhythm guitar; and the lead guitar was a shimmering landscape on top of it all. It would have helped a lot if I felt like Nash had something worth singing about.

Midlake is a psychedelic/indie/folk band from Denton, Texas. They've recently received some notice because their lead singer and songwriter just ditched the band in the middle of recording their fourth album. However, instead of scattering in disarray, hiring a new lead singer that no one likes, or just becoming total crap, they have reinvented themselves and perhaps become even stronger. Guitarist Eric Pulido has taken on lead vocal duties, and they hired a new lead guitarist (Joey McClellan) and an additional keyboardist/flautist (Jesse Chandler), both of whom also provide backing vocals. And then they wrote and recorded a new album with impressive speed.

I had my doubts that such a switch-up could do justice for a band that already had some history behind it. I have to admit, I don't really know what the former singer sounds like, so I would be a poor judge of how well Pulido handles the old songs. But I also must admit that I liked Pulido quite a bit, even though I couldn't really understand his lyrics at all. He felt very earnest and in tune with the environment, and at the conclusion of each song, I could trace a smile hidden behind his beard as he looked down at his pedals (or feet, who knows). His comfort and ease may have been due to the very appreciative co-Texan crowd. Musically, Pulido's strengths were only further enhanced by McClellan and Chandler's backing vocals, which all together made for consistently impressive harmonies.

Midlake is the type of band where it isn't always obvious who is playing what. You can watch the six musicians on stage manipulate their instruments and vocal cords, but their sound is so big and sweeping, you can't always easily pick out the individual parts. This is not a discredit to their live sound or their ideology; to the contrary, I thought the mixing was quite good and their total sound was great. If you listened closely, you could usually identify that there was always a bass and a keyboard part, and you could guess that the assorted high-end sounds came from the other keyboard or the lead guitar. The drums and the acoustic guitar were never too hard to discern, and the flute could usually be identified with a bit of concerted effort. Actually, it's worth mentioning the merit of that flute: far from being a mere ornamental addition, or an oddity thrown in just for attention, it ends up playing integral roles in many songs and filling in extra melodies that blend in just right. Now, if I had to make one complaint about their live sound, it would be that the bassist was a little too low, and while I could tell he was doing some interesting parts, some of them were indeed lost in the mix.

All in all, Midlake reminded me in many ways of Junip, whom I just saw at ACL in October. Both bands seem rooted in folk music; both feature a lead singer/acoustic guitarist surrounded by a large instrumental soundscape in which keyboards are more important than guitars; and both are just a little abstract, a little spacey, a little hard to understand. While Junip sometimes managed to sound a little too simple and pop-driven, Midlake came across decidedly more progressive and exploratory. I liked Junip, but I think Midlake has far more to offer in the long term. (I'm still going to hedge my bets and watch both, though!)

I also bought Midlake's new album, Antiphon. I've already listened to it twice and I'm quite impressed. I think they played about half of it at the show ("Provider Reprise" was definitely the closer of the main set, before the encore), but as Pulido said at the show, they also walked through their back-catalog quite extensively. My impression is that their live show is a little bigger, a little more powerful than their recorded output. At any rate, I liked both quite a bit.

Israel Nash: B
Midlake: A
Antiphon (based solely on my hasty first impressions!): A-

[Edit 2014.09.06: After listening to Antiphon plenty more, as well as the preceding albums, I can confirm that Pulido is a very satisfactory replacement for Tim Smith. He might even be better. But either way, while I like all their albums, Antiphon is clearly the best, and I might even give it a solid A.]