Last Night: Midlake at Numbers

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Midlake Numbers Thursday, September 20

Better Than: Trying to explain why you’re so offended that the already-on-thin-ice Kaiser Chiefs ripped off Duran Duran on “Angry Mob.”

Download: “Roscoe” or “Head Home” from The Trials of Van Occupanther, for a clear idea of the '70s bands Midlake cut their teeth on.

After two venue switches – Numbers to Walter’s and back to Numbers (where we all eventually end up, anyway) – and more hype than could be carried in a bucket, Midlake took the stage, playing “Van Occupanther” to what looked like an ACL run-off crowd. A five-piece group of former music students, the Denton-based outfit affects the same sort of distanced vulnerability as Ladybug Transistor, though their compositions are much too calculated to leave much obvious room for jamming.

Midlake plays precise chamber pop. Their greatest commercial asset seems to be a firm confidence in knowing what their audience wants and having the ability to consistently deliver. Understand: These guys paid attention in school. These are professional musicians who understand the science of melody, and any shortcomings trace back to the fact that their songcraft hasn’t quite caught up with their technical abilities.

Though “Roscoe” – which made a strong showing on Thursday night – sounds like it could’ve been an outtake from After the Gold Rush, the Neil Young/Crazy Horse comparisons don’t entirely sublimate in the live show; rather than pulsing, Midlake throbs. Their energy is more contemplative than kinetic . . . not a bad thing since this music is designed for small rooms and headphones. They connect intellectually rather than viscerally, which may trim their core audience but could simultaneously make for some sublime moments.

Watching the crowd at Numbers, I had the suspicion that it was very much a “be seen” affair, which can’t – and won’t – be held against the band, but it’s something they’ll have to fight through for at least a couple more records. Much like the new kid at school or a just-opened 124-four hour restaurant, a band like Midlake – not amateurs by any stretch but just on the cusp of mass interest - will hone their personality and won’t really know what their capital-F Fans look like until the band itself has a better understanding of what they’re reaching for.

Perhaps Midlake’s most interesting challenge will be reconciling their epic tendencies with the need for brevity. A radio presence is within their reach, but they also have the tools and ambition to create lilting soundscapes that provide the listener with expansive and luscious territories to explore, with melancholia and gentle passion lurking in the corners. Some of the best evidence for this argument comes from the slow-driving “Branches,” which popped, rocked and soared, proving that the band is certainly capable of rolling up their various impulses and displaying the results in a productive and altogether cohesive bouquet. -- Chris Henderson

Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: Que?

Random Detail: The Numbers neophytes were out in force. My Nightfly-tuned ears picked up folks trying to order a chardonnay, some guy whining because there was foam in his beer and another dude having a fit because the bartenders couldn’t do anything about the first band starting a half-hour behind schedule.

By the Way: A leaky air conditioning unit dripped moisture on the head of vocalist/guitarist Tim Smith him to quip, “Is it raining in here?” A regular at the bar growled back, “No, man. It’s only raining on you.” Didn’t see that guy anywhere near the merch table.

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