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Midlake moves forward by taking a step back

On "Van Occupanther," Denton, Tex., quintet Midlake describes a mid-19th-century scientist mocked by society, who prefers loneliness to community. "Let me not be too consumed with this world," sings Tim Smith, the group's leader. "Sometimes I want to go home/And stay out of sight for a long time."

The quirky "Van Occupanther" suggests that Midlake's The Trials of Van Occupanther is the kind of willfully difficult tour de force that marks so many recent indie-rock albums (see Joanna Newsom's Ys and TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain). Each song concerns a different character from a pretechnology, dream-like world in the 19th century.

But the music isn't difficult at all. It's warm and lush soft rock inspired by mid-'70s West Coast artists such as Harvest-era Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and America. What makes The Trials of Van Occupanther great is the tension between these detailed story songs and soothing propulsive hooks worthy of the Eagles' "Take it Easy."

On the amazing "Young Bride," Smith sings, "Polonaise in winter/Snowshoes and hunters/Carry the goods in for you/Darkness and forest/Grant you the longest/Face made for porridge and stew." Delivered over cathartic melodies, Smith's imagistic chorus goes down like honey.

Smith argues that Midlake isn't a retro band. "We're trying to be ourselves in a certain way," he says. "We're not trying to rip off the '70s." But he acknowledges that he wants to make pleasing music that has an emotional effect. "There's a large part of me that wants to sing for people and bring some joy into their life," he says. "I think bands are lying when they say they don't care what people think. I really do."

The five men in Midlake -- Smith, guitarist Eric Pulido, keyboardist Eric Nichelson, bassist Paul Alexander and drummer McKenzie Smith -- met while attending the prestigious University of North Texas' school of music. They were jazz musicians when they formed the band in 1998, and played a fusion of jazz, funk and hip-hop. "It was probably pretty bad and experimental," says Smith, who played saxophone back then.

By 2004 and its full-fledged debut Banman and Silvercork, Midlake played electronic rock in the vein of the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Radiohead. Smith sang fractured lyrics in a disorienting and harmonic style, and the band's music was aloof and hallucinatory. One of the disc's best songs, "They Cannot Let it Expand," found him repeating the title over and over again.

"I remember thinking that it was really unique-sounding in a way. I knew we had a lot to learn and we weren't quite there," Smith says of Banman and Silvercork. "But I felt we had a good enough album to get out to people." The group subsequently embraced '70s soft rock, negatively reacting to the quirky and schematic Banman and Silvercork just as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell turned away from psychedelic gimmickry decades earlier.

Each evolution of Midlake is seemingly dictated by the group's listening tastes and its search for the perfect sound. Smith, the group's lead songwriter, is the type of restless and analytical personality who is rarely comfortable for long. But he feels he may have found his niche.

"I'm still listening to the same stuff now as I was at the beginning of Van Occupanther so I feel that, in some ways, I've found a bigger place to fit," he says. "I'm not satisfied with Van Occupanther. I think it's a good album. I think that, as days go on, I like it less and less because I'm gearing up for another album."

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