Free and legal MP3: Midlake (gorgeous British folk revival sound)

Last heard in a Fleetwood Mac-ish soft rock mode (2007’s The Trials of Van Occupanther), the boys from Denton, Texas have reemerged with a renewed hankering for a more traditional-sounding British rock. But rather than the semi-psychedelic early Pink Floyd and Procol Harum-esque pageantry on display through much of Bamnan and Slivercork, their 2004 debut, the quintet takes it back a notch further to a ’60s British folk scene sound–think Steeleye Span, think Fairport Convention, think gentle, chivalrous melodies and general melancholy woebegone-edness.

“Acts of Man” – Midlake

Last heard in a Fleetwood Mac-ish soft rock mode (2007’s The Trials of Van Occupanther), the boys from Denton, Texas have reemerged with a renewed hankering for a more traditional-sounding British rock. But rather than the semi-psychedelic early Pink Floyd and Procol Harum-esque pageantry on display through much of Bamnan and Slivercork, their 2004 debut, the quintet takes it back a notch further to a ’60s British folk scene sound–think Steeleye Span, think Fairport Convention, think gentle, chivalrous melodies and general melancholy woebegone-edness.

But me, I’m eating it up because the stuff is marvelously crafted, ravishingly performed, and drop-dead gorgeous. What a vibe the band has here! Tim Smith’s medievally baritone is just the start of it. From the golden-toned acoustic guitar to the almost regal rumble of the drums to the deep and delicate flute lines and the potent minor-key melody that holds it all together, “Acts of Man” presents an aural landscape that all but makes me cry, for reasons beyond explanation. This is music working–as classical music is so often supposed to–at the level of pure emotion.

Apparently not everyone gets it. In addition to a number of supportive reviews, the new album, The Courage of Others, has gotten some notable pans, including a tone-deaf dismissal in Pitchfork. Normally I get a bit worked up over that kind of thing but this time it just occurs to me to feel badly for anyone whose head and ears can’t let them hear the beauty and worth of this album. Released last week on Bella Union, it’s only going to get better over time. MP3 via Insound.

Free and legal MP3: Will Stratton (gorgeous, reverb-laced)

I like the sonic interplay between the crisply strummed acoustic guitar at the front of the mix and that big dark open space underneath–space created seemingly by just a lonesome-prairie guitar and Stratton’s voice, each enhanced as they are by a steady, stately reverb.

“Who Will” – Will Stratton

Gorgeous and swaying, but with a deep-down sense of gravity. (Anyone remember the old Fleetwood Mac instrumental “Albatross”? This evokes that, pleasantly.) I like the sonic interplay between the crisply strummed acoustic guitar at the front of the mix and that big dark open space underneath–space created seemingly by just a lonesome-prairie guitar and Stratton’s voice, each enhanced as they are by a steady, stately reverb. The acoustic guitar offers naked immediacy, the reverbed layers lend a shadowy, contemplative air. Somewhere in the middle someone is sitting at a piano and playing a few chords every so often, adding to the engaging three-dimensionality. Later we get female harmonies, violins, even a trumpet, all of which contribute further to the song’s gentle dream.

But this song has a haunting quality that seems to be larger than the sum of its parts. In a weird way it’s as if the reverb itself, independent of what’s reverb-ing (the drums get it too, and the trumpet, and the female backing singers), is a visceral part of the intimate yet spacious landscape, is itself somehow its own presence in the music.

The 22-year-old Stratton recorded his first album, What the Night Said, the summer after he graduated from high school, and it was released two years later, in 2007. Two years further on, he’s out the other side of college, and along comes his second album, No Wonder, released last week on Stunning Models on Display. MP3 via the record company.

Free and legal MP3: Ed Laurie (Leonard Cohen meets Jacques Brel, with Spanish guitar)

“Albert” – Ed Laurie

Wow. Warm and wondrous neo-folk from a young British singer/songwriter. Listen to the stirring tension in the verse–the song is quiet, but with a restless heartbeat–and then how it resolves in that gorgeous chorus with its shy, unexpected melody. Oh my. For me, this is goosebump material, and I don’t say that lightly, or very often.

Although he is basically a guy with a guitar, Laurie does not sound like a typical singer/songwriter, both because of his husky baritone, with its air of bygone days about it, and because the guitar he plays is nylon-stringed, like a flamenco guitar, which he plays with a gentle but urgent flow, full of intimations of far-away times and cultures. He plays, also, with an ear for his accompaniment, which is a quiet and knowing mix of acoustic instruments, including a clarinet, which in particular feels both unexpected and ideal.

Laurie claims influences from a variety of musical traditions–born in London, he has extended family in Eastern Europe, Germany, Spain, and Brazil, and grew up listening to classical music. His press material offers comparisons to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and Jacques Brel, which sounds about right to me. “Albert” is from Laurie’s debut EP, Meanwhile in the Park, which was previously released on iTunes only and is slated for a full U.S. release on Dangerbird Records in October. Laurie is currently working on his first full-length album, to be called Small Boat Big Sea.