Midlake, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 18-02-10

Did you hear the one about the record label thriving in the 21st century? As the big boys choke on their bills for ‘Champagne and flowers’ and try to cope with the latest Robbie Williams flop there stands Bella Union, scaling it all back and reminding us what a record label can and should be good for. Started in 1997 by Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie, a pair of Cocteau Twins, they’ve been sniffing out the best beardy folk rock, experimental psychedelic pop and pained singer songwriters from all over. They have Explosions In The Sky, The Dears, Beach House, J Tillman (and his band Fleet Foxes) and perhaps, FF aside, their most rapidly growing success story, Texan quintet Midlake.

In some ways, musicians are faced with an impossible mountain to climb. There’s so much new music out there it’s tough to get heard. But then, one might say that there’s so many people looking, that if you’re that good you stand a decent chance of being found. We’re all A&R men now, and the pickings are rich. But then the dreaded attention span issue comes in. If a band doesn’t make a brilliant first album they’re tossed on the heap. Whatever happened to making a few records before you find your voice? No time. It’s got to be good and it’s got to be now. Bella Union are the antidote, they let their artists climb at their own rate. Sometimes a runaway train does break through, like Fleet Foxes. After one EP and one album they found themselves playing too high up the 2009 Glasto bill, looking adrift. Though their songs are undeniably brilliant, they haven’t formed their identity, so as they shuffle nervously onstage you feel the coming expectation of album two, is going to weigh heavy.

Midlake, a few EPs and three albums in, are just now able to play venues the size of the 2000 capacity Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Allowed to make a couple of albums while no-one noticed, they are now ready and moving at their own pace, growing in experience and gaining a fan base at a comfortable level. Now expanded to a seven-piece live, their chilled psychedelic folk rock was a charming way to spend an evening. There’s something undemanding about them, almost forgettable. But you sense they’re the kind of band who’ll start making their best records at album five or six. That’s how it used to be – some of the best artists you can think of, from U2 to Tim Buckley, made several albums before anyone noticed. Albums were made quickly, and to a budget, so that a label weren’t going mad at the studio bill and the artist didn’t find themselves deeply in debt to a label unwilling to take chances on them or anyone else in the future. Now albums can be self-made in a home studio as good as any you can record in. This recording freedom is death to big labels and relentlessly invigorating to everyone else. Midlake took 18 months to make their new album, The Courage Of Others. A decade ago they wouldn’t have had a chance. A beautiful grower of a record, they played much of it last night to a typical London crowd.

By typical, I mean everyone found it hard to shut up and stop moving around constantly for drinks. People treat gigs like they’re in a pub. You don’t notice it when you’re at the front, because those that surround you are committed to the artist. Arriving late, I was at the back, constantly distracted by the search for booze and inane chatter. But as the gig wore on everyone started to focus, realising this band were working hard up there and deserved more attention. And of course, they had started playing songs the audience knew, from 2006’s breakthrough album The Trials of Van Occupanther.

They’re what I’d call a Whistle Test band. They look young, laid back, long- haired, wear a bit of flannel and indulge in the odd jam. Not too much though, it was all tightly played, mostly through their four minute folk pop gems. CSNY harmonies backed by post-Green, but pre-Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac. They might have listened to a lot of what leader Tim Smith has called ‘fair maiden’ music (meaning Fairport Convention and the Pentangle) but fortunately their sound remains relatively untouched by that particular kind of British folk sound, which is a relief to my ear. It was an undemanding but enjoyable night and it’ll be a pleasure to see them find their feet in the next few years.