Ever have a week with too much to do and not enough time to do it? Of course you have. Well I’m having one right now.
Disc 1120 is… Middle Brother (Self-Titled)
Artist: Middle Brother
Year of Release: 2011
What’s up with the Cover? Three hip cats just hanging out. John McCauley is wearing a Black Flag shirt which probably means he’s a fan, but there’s a chance he’s being ironic. There’s no way to know with these hipsters without asking, and I don’t have his number.
How I Came To Know It: Middle Brother was ranked #93 on Paste Magazine’s “100 Top indie folk albums of all time”. I’m not sure I would rank them #93, but I know a lot of folk albums and it is a seriously good one. I would have had it sooner but it was filed under “Deer Tick” at my local record store. More on why in a minute.
How It Stacks Up: This is the only Middle Brother album so it can’t stack up.
Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4
When it comes to super groups there are plenty genres other than rock and roll where big names come together to do something new. “Middle Brother” is indie folk-rock’s answer to the super group.
But how super are they? The incorporate the core songwriting talents from the bands Deer Tick (John McCauley), Dawes (Taylor Goldsmith) and Delta Spirit (Matt Vasquez). I have two Dawes albums, had vaguely heard of Deer Tick and didn’t know who Delta Spirit was, so I wasn’t terribly impressed at the outset. However, Youtube puts these bands at a few hundred thousand hits up to two million, which for an indie band is pretty damned super. Jason Isbell even guests on guitar.
OK, so there are some big (for the genre) names here but is the music any good? Yes, it is. Middle Brother’s three principle songwriters all know their craft well and while they wear their influences on their sleeves, they wear them well. I’m not sure what tracks Isbell are on, but the guitar work throughout is excellent.
The album hearkens back to the early crossover days of folk, country and rock and both the songs and their delivery had me thinking of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. This is partly the nasal delivery of at least two of the “brothers” reminding me of Roger McGuinn but it goes deeper than that, and is found in the celebratory jangle present in even the sadder songs.
I also felt the influence of early rock and roll, and on “Me Me Me” I felt like half the A section was from Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel.” At any moment I was expecting at least one ‘brother’ to walk down to a preacher and say “I do”.
As you would expect from three accomplished songwriters there are some beautiful turns of phrase. The album begins with “Daydreaming” a sublimely plucked guitar and the lines:
“Early in the morning too hung over to go back to sleep
Every sound is amplified, every light so dizzying.
Listen for a while to the neighbours having sex
Wishing I could lay my aching head upon your breast.”
Great stuff from John McCauley, but every one of the trio has equally great stuff on the record. Unfortunately, it feels like they cram all their best material onto the front half of the record, and my favourite songs are the first six.
The last of those is “Portland,” the album’s only cover, features a jaunty high-voiced guitar that provides the perfect juxtaposition to the song’s themes of collapse and decadence. When I went to Youtube to hear the Replacements original I found myself disappointed. With its rounded tones and eighties production it just lacked the poignancy that Middle Brother manages to generate with their stark and honest delivery.
After “Portland” the album took a slightly downward turn. “Wilderness” is solid, with some great turns of phrase (my favourite: “I plan to be the kind of person that when he drinks, he disappoints”) but kind of lost me at the refrain, which isn’t a good place for a song to lose you.
After this there are a series of songs that reminded me of early Beatles, which would be great if you like early Beatles, but it isn’t my thing. “Million Dollar Bill” is a pretty ending to the record, and I liked it, but as songs of lost love and regret go, I preferred the earlier track “Thanks for Nothing.”
These are minor quibbles, though, and the only real issue I had with Side Two was that it couldn’t match the sheer brilliance of Side One. Most records wish they could have that problem.
This is a record worth owning, and I left it with a strong sense that it will grow on me more and more with repeat listens.
Best tracks: Daydreaming, Blue Eyes, Thanks for Nothing, Middle Brother, Theatre, Portland