MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
If you want to be taken seriously as a musician, you have to be original. If you borrow too much or look like you do, critics will eat you alive.
Take the band Midlake. It's been praised by some, but it's also been charged with ripping off Fleetwood Mac and, because the group has a flute player, Jethro Tull.
Midlake is fighting back with its latest release, "The Courage of Others." Nate Plutzik visited them at home in Denton, Texas.
NATE PLUTZIK: Creating an original sound is not easy. Like virtually every musician, the members of Midlake have struggled to come up with its own, and those struggles have not gone unnoticed. Pete Freedman is music editor for the Dallas Observer.
Mr. PETE FREEDMAN (Music Editor, Dallas Observer): They do wear their influences on their sleeve. And the knock on Midlake is that they are in some ways just glorified mimics.
(Soundbite of , "Roscoe")
MIDLAKE (Music Group): (Singing) Stonecutters made them from stones, chosen especially for you and I. Who will live inside?
PLUTZIK: The members of Midlake don't disagree.
Mr. McKENZIE SMITH (Drummer, Midlake): In a music like rock and roll, it already has been done.
PLUTZIK: Drummer McKenzie Smith.
Mr. M. SMITH: There already has been the guys who were, like, more bluesy, more R&B rock, more heavy, more light, more acoustic, less acoustic, more electronic, more weird. I mean, it's all been done, and it's been done over and over and over again.
So, being original in that sense is very, very, very difficult, which is why I think we do spend a long time making records because if you're not going to be completely original, it better be pretty damn good.
PLUTZIK: And musicians aren't the only ones who fall back on well-worn riffs, say Midlake singer Tim Smith and guitarist Eric Pulido. They point to music critics.
Mr. ERIC PULIDO (Guitarist, Midlake): It seems like the goal is to figure it out, to write out the equation. You know, the new Midlake album, "The Courage of Others," laying on the palette of foundational jazz, gone through the whimsical years of (unintelligible) through Fleetwood Mac's precious melody harmonies, land in the lake of British folk laying on their lap. And, you know, it's like he got it. Yes, he figured it out.
(Soundbite of song, "The Courage of Others")
MIDLAKE: (Singing) How can they have the courage of lords that have long since passed? It's in their hands. It's in their heads.
PLUTZIK: To keep them guessing, Midlake's musicians spent three years working in their Denton studio trying to come up with something new. McKenzie Smith recalls the experience.
Mr. M. SMITH: We don't have a massive studio here. It's just basically two or three rooms. And this is like the home base. We rehearse here, we meet here, and we do record here. And so, we weren't really recording a next album. What we were really doing was rehearsing and learning. So I like to think about it as we rehearsed for a year.
PLUTZIK: The five members of the band are all from Texas. So to find inspiration, they looked around them.
(Soundbite of song, "Small Mountain")
MIDLAKE: (Singing) A way life that will surely be gone.
Mr. TIM SMITH (Vocalist): My parents, who lived in Bandera, Texas, on a hill called Polly Peak, it's a small mountain, it's kind of about that, I would visit from college. I would wait tables at my dad's restaurant and just live in there a summer or two up on that hill.
PLUTZIK: Midlake kept some of its Texas influences, but still had to work to sculpt a sound that would make it stand out from the Austin music scene close by. Drummer McKenzie Smith.
Mr. M. SMITH: In a perfect world, you just press play and record, and then all of a sudden, you are making magic. But that just wasn't the case. It was fighting through a lot of layers of oh, that's not right, and that doesn't sound good, and we're not jelling as a band.
Unidentified Man #1: Could someone else count it off in there so it picks up...
Unidentified Man #2: One, ready?
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, I'm ready, yeah.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. M. SMITH: And all of a sudden, once you grabbed on, I think it was "Acts of Man" that Tim had written at that point, we were all like now we have a standard for the album. Now, we can really get to work.
(Soundbite of song, "Acts of Man")
MIDLAKE: (Singing) If all that grows starts to fade, starts to falter, oh let me inside. Let me inside not to wake. Let all that run through the fields, through the quiet go on their own, on their own hidden ways.
PLUTZIK: So what did they come up with after three years? One long track, or it's 11 different attempts at getting the same song right. And that's a good thing, says Dallas Observer music editor Pete Freedman.
Mr. FREEDMAN: It's overwhelming the empathy that you feel for what they're putting out there. I think once you allow yourself to give in to Midlake's sound, it really becomes something that will blow you away.
PLUTZIK: That's what the members of Midlake were hoping to hear. Singer Tim Smith acknowledges that their music is a representation of their influences or whatever they're listening to. But he asserts that it's also something that comes from them.
Mr. T. SMITH: I see it as a very personal thing. It's great if people enjoy stuff that Midlake does, and I really like I like to be understood.
PLUTZIK: Midlake is currently on tour, and although the musicians' message may be intensely personal, they still want to share it no matter what it sounds like.
For NPR News, I'm Nate Plutzik.