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Published: 2011/03/29
by Brian Robbins

Middle Brother
Middle Brother

Partisan Records

Resist the temptation.

Resist the temptation to refer to Middle Brother as some kind of indie superband. While the three principals (John McCauley, Taylor Goldsmith, and Matthew Vasquez) all have lead singer berths in bands of their own (Deer Tick, Dawes, and Delta Spirit, respectively), this Middle Brother thing stands on its own two feet. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard a note by any of their day jobs – just dig into this album for itself.

Resist the temptation.

Resist the temptation to try to dissect the 12 tunes on Middle Brother into Vasquez songs or Goldsmith songs or McCauley songs. This album is a cohesive effort, made up of variations on a group mindset – with each member chipping in his share of twang, crunch, grin, and ache.

Not to say that each of the Middle Bros doesn’t have a sound of his own.

Goldsmith simmers – obvious sweetness with a sucker punch full of emotion waiting in the wings. (Think Jeff Tweedy with a much softer side when it needs to be … and all the power on the other end.) (Or better yet, listen to “Blood and Guts” and try not to think of Jeff Tweedy.)

Vasquez feels like the biggest risk taker – from the deep-breath-and-let-it-wail chorus of “Theater” to the beer-piss-against-the-Wall-of-Sound faux gal group la-la-las of “Someday”. Not to give it all away, but I have to tell you: the risks are worth it every time.

McCauley, meanwhile, has the most distinctive pipes of the three. When he braces off and digs into a lyric, he has a voice that vacillates between sounding like a Tuvan throat singer with a four-pack-a-day habit and a half-drunk-and-broken-hearted Paul Westerberg – in other words, it’s ideal for this gig. McCauley’s the perfect choice to lead the Middle Brothers through the badly-hung-over finger-picking sweetness of the album opener “Daydreaming” or (speaking of Mr. Westerberg) a cover of the Replacements’ no-regrets apology “Portland”.

Resist the temptation.

Resist the temptation to overthink this album. The Middle Brothers didn’t, which is part of its charm. There’s a let-the-tape roll ambience to these songs that doesn’t come from punching in a guitar solo on the 39th take. This is the sound of three musicians who are just naturally good at what they do and are comfortable with it. They know that trimming the raggedy cuffs would just make the legs too short and nothing would fit right. They know to just go with it.

Witness the tie-the-wheel-and-put-a-brick-on-the-accelerator crazy-ass honky tonk of “Me, Me, Me” or the title song – both featuring deeper-than-you-might-think lyrics. (All three of the Middle Bros are like the brainy kid who acts up so you won’t realize just how clever he really is.)

Witness “Blue Eyes”, which could be a distant cousin to the old Neil Young and Crazy Horse back-porch stomper “Dance, Dance, Dance”: the song’s roundy-round sway and crunchy twang firmly lodge themselves into your feet, hips, and head within seconds with all three Brothers combining their voices into one:

Blue eyes are turning green
Mine have always been that way
A soft kiss is a hard goodbye
I’ve been knocked out since yesterday

The almost-military thump of the drum is offset by the big grins of the barroom piano that staggers and weaves perfectly throughout the song. Dig the off-mic bellowed “Hey!” at 0:49 – a frantic cue for a still-learning-the-arrangement band to head into the chorus … or sheer reckless joy? It matters not – it feels the same.

I been looking for some time
In a room full of pennies for my dime
It ain’t easy to find …

And the crash and the clatter cease and the tubes glow and it’s just Vasquez:

A girl like you to be mine

Snaky/smoky/greasy if-it-ain’t-a-Telecaster-it-sure-sounds-like-one mock-fiddle licks wind their way around syllables and do-si-do with the piano. Total tightrope walk, with nobody looking at their feet – but there’s no way that they can fall ‘cause they’re having such a good time. Into the last verse they go:

She’s a Southern girl without the drawl
She a good girl who wears black bras
The only one who can make me crawl
She’s too sweet to force me …

There’s a stutter; a stagger; an-almost-into-the-chorus lurch, but there’s still more verse to be sung:

Got a hard hand but not on her
Got a foul mouth that she’s never heard
Hear her sing just like a bird
She writes her song about me …

There – that needed to be said; now for the last chorus:

I been looking for some time
In a room full of pennies for my dime
It ain’t easy to find
A girl like you to be mine …

Resist the temptation.

Resist the temptation to mend the blown-out knee or the ripped-up ass of your favorite worn-all-to-shit blue jeans.

If they could sing, they’d sound just like Middle Brother.

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