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Merchandiser's Dream

With most types of music now instantly available to anyone curious enough to seek it out, it's interesting to see a trend developing whereby hip American acts seem to be leaning towards the folk-rock elements which were first in vogue among left-field English outfits in the late 60s.

In the recent past we've had great albums from Iron & Wine, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, The Decembrists and The Low Anthem, who tip a respectful nod towards the music pioneered by Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and the recently departed John Martyn.

The latest US outfit to lurch in this direction are the Texas quintet Midlake. Their 2007 breakthrough album The Trials of Van Occupanther was a songwriting masterclass which sounded like it could have been recorded in sunny California around 1973, such was the lushness and warmth of the harmonies and the choruses. However, for The Courage of Others they've changed sonic tack immediately and immersed themselves in the musical styles of not-so-sunny England and the effect, while initially jarring to anyone expecting an extension of what they did on Van Occupanther, is captivating.

Of course, this delving back into the origins of British folk-rock by American bands isn't exactly a new thing, what with the early 60s folkies acknowledging the source of much of their material, while back in the mid-80s two of the finest emerging bands from across the Atlantic made a similar connection. In 1985, both REM and 10,000 Maniacs recorded in Britain with Joe Boyd, an American who'd moved to England in the mid-60s and, in addition to recording the first Pink Floyd single, became a crucial component of the sound of the emerging Island label.

REM's Fables of the Reconstruction is still regarded by many fans as their finest after Murmur, while with The Wishing Chair 10,000 Maniacs established themselves as contenders for REM's college radio crown, with lead singer Natalie Merchant's choir-pure voice and literate lyrics bringing a distinct identity to compelling songs such as Can't Ignore the Train, Arbor Day, Grey Victory and My Mother The War.

The REM/10,000 Maniacs connections didn't just end there, as the two bands toured extensively together in 1987, with Merchant and Michael Stipe seeming so like two sides of the same indie intellectual coin that it was seriously reckoned that the pair were a romantic item. Ah well.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Merchant led the band on an upward trajectory, culminating in 1993 with the US Top 30 success of Our Time In Eden and the Top 20 placing of MTV Unplugged, which yielded a hit single in the shape of a cover of Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen's Because The Night. At that point she went solo, scoring an instant success with her debut album, Tigerlily, on which she continued to mine her vein of thoughtful, at times whimsical folk rock -- a musical seam she's stuck with and now seems back in vogue again.

Natalie Merchant plays Whelan's on Monday. Midlake's The Courage of Others is released on Bella Union tomorrow