Based solely on material from Best Coast’s debut album Crazy for You, we learned four main things about frontwoman Bethany Cosentino: She likes boys (most specifically, Nathan Williams of Wavves), California, weed, and cats. It was remarkably easy to boil her down to those characteristics, and she spent quite a bit of time touring and doing interviews in an effort to break free from those labels. Delving deeper into her psyche via such interviews and her strikingly entertaining Twitter feed, we’ve learned a bit more about her, and it all sets us up quite nicely for Best Coast’s sophmore record The Only Place. First and foremost, Cosentino has said many times that this second album is more “emo” and “pop-punk” than the band’s debut. If you’ve been keeping a careful eye on what Best Coast has been up to the last couple years, perhaps you saw one of their shows where they covered Blink 182. Such moments give you a pretty good idea where some of the band’s sonic inspiration stems from. They’ve given up the lo-fi grunge of the first album and hired producer Jon Brion to add plenty of polish and space. In some respects a bit of the mystery is lost by removing the instrumental layers of fuzz generated by Bobb Bruno’s excellent guitar work. Such purposeful flaws only heightened Best Coast’s overall aesthetic as a crew of plainspoken slackers that were just like us. With everything on The Only Place coming off as pristine, it creates a new imperative that they have to take themselves much more seriously and professionally. The good news is that the melodies seem to take that thought to heart, as the guitars jangle, the vocals soar, and the hooks grab you by the ears and won’t let go. Their sonic palette has expanded a bit too, at least enough to incorporate light blushes of alt-country. It would have worked even better had they thrown in at least a little slide guitar or fiddle, but songs like “My Life”, “No One Like You” and “Dreaming My Life Away” feel like they’re channeling Neko Case in overall tone anyways. That’s probably Cosentino’s hope, though she’d be even more ecstatic to generate comparisons to her role model and personal hero, Stevie Nicks. She comes strikingly close on “Do You Still Love Me Like You Used To”, particularly on the multi-harmonized chorus, however that song and others are cursed with one major flaw: the lyrics. If you’re going to clean up your sound and strive for something more professional, you’ve got to back away at least a little bit from lines like, “The sun was high/and so was I” or “You say that/we’re just friends/but I want this/til the end”. Cosentino has changed her writing style a bit, moving away from the lackadaisical summer fun themes and towards the more personal and emotional. Most of the songs on The Only Place feel like pages pulled from a diary, but from a girl in her early teens and not her mid-twenties. Remarks such as, “My mom was right/I don’t wanna die/I wanna live my life,” on “My Life” are simple to a fault. The opening title track keeps the never ending cycle of songs about California going, and like a pseudo-cousin to Katy Perry’s “California Girls”, features lines like, “We’ve got the ocean/Got the babes/Got the sun/We’ve got the waves.” Don’t be shocked if you hear that eyeroll-worthy beast in a commercial soon, probably for the State of California Tourism Board. Why Cosentino’s lyrics are so poorly written has less to do with how uncomplicated they are and more to do with sheer predictability. Nine times out of ten you can guess what the line-ending rhyme is going to be, and while it may be easier to sing along as a result, that sort of blandness really isn’t helping anyone. A little more energy or even some experimentation in the songs would have offset the lyrical damage a bit, but unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of that to be found on The Only Place. If Best Coast really is planning to continue to grow into a full-fledged, professional band, they’ve still got some work left to do. The majority of that falls straight on Cosentino, who might want to spend just a little less time messing around on Twitter and a little more time trying to avoid becoming a cliche.
“Look out Hollywood, here I come,” Joshua Tillman sings on “Funtimes in Babylon,” the opening track to his record Fear Fun, and his first under the moniker of Father John Misty. It’s a line that feels very appropriate given the situation that Tillman has put himself in. As the drummer and backup vocalist for Fleet Foxes, he played an important role in helping to shape the band’s backwoods folk sound and glorious harmonies that have earned them rave after rave review. Fleet Foxes have become increasingly popular over the last few years and pair of records, to the point where they’d come awfully close to headlining a major music festival. They certainly fared well last summer, headlining the smaller and more boutique setting that is the Pitchfork Music Festival. One wonders why anyone would voluntarily leave a band just as success was genuinely finding them. Yet that’s the path Tillman has chosen for himself. He had a reasonably established solo career under his given name of J. Tillman even before joining Fleet Foxes, and his records like Vacilando Territory Blues, Year in the Kingdom and Singing Air began to earn some real attention as a direct result of his other success. Presumably wanting to explore that further and escape the back of the stage drum kit, he announced last year he was leaving the band to focus full time on his own music. He cut a deal with Sub Pop and changed his performing name to Father John Misty.
With a new label and new name he’s also shifted his style as well on the new record Fear Fun. The material he released as J. Tillman was singer-songwriter folk with alt-country leanings. He was in a class with Nick Drake, Will Oldham, Gram Parsons and Damien Jurado. A fair amount of those similarities are retained on this new record, but Tillman has expanded his sonic palette a bit and moved his focus from the dreary rains of Seattle into the sunny disposition of Los Angeles. Much of the album was written after a bout of depression and writer’s block, which he attempted to shake off by jumping in his car and driving down the West coast with a huge bag of mushrooms and no set destination. He began writing a novel (the likely inspiration for the song “I’m Writing a Novel”), and suddenly his songwriter instincts kicked back in. Upon settling into what he describes as a spider infested tree house in Laurel Canyon, Tillman felt like he’d finally found his true voice. That voice was different from anything he’d done before; the goal was to destroy the artifice of fiction in his music and approach his songs with a candor and honesty so many others actively avoid. Not only is it refreshing to hear, it’s also pretty funny. “Pour me another drink/and punch me in the face/You can call me Nancy,” Tillman sings at the start of “Nancy From Now On”. That’s not meant to be taken seriously, as is much of “I’m Writing a Novel”, where Tillman has a bad drug trip: “I ran down the road/pants down to my knees/screaming please come help me that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me”. It’s not all fun and amusement though. Single “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” is a darkly themed Neil Young-ian dirge about a death in the family, that features Tillman pleading, “Someone’s gotta help me dig.” On “Now I’m Learning to Love the War”, he makes the connection between fighting in the Middle East and the creation of music. “Try not to think about/the truly staggering amount/of oil that it takes to make a record,” he points out in something of a depressing fashion.
As straightforward as Fear Fun can be lyrically, its overall execution winds up being a little more complex. Tracks like “Funtimes in Babylon”, “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” and “Everyman Needs a Companion” are gorgeous folk numbers with echo-laden harmonies that almost instantly recall Fleet Foxes. Tillman apparently wanted to help create a bridge between fan bases, and this record is pretty successful at doing just that. Yet it’s also adventurous in its eclecticism. Pedal steel and Americana take center stage on “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2” and “Well, You Can Do It Without Me”, while “Tee Pees 1-12” breaks out the fiddles and hand claps for a good ol’ fashioned hoedown. Along the way classic records from Harry Nilsson and Waylon Jennings tend to come to mind, though never at the same time. The variety serves the album well, particularly because all the sounds are rooted in the same basic elements and ideas. Turns out that after seven records as J. Tillman and two in Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty arrives fully formed and with a set of songs that are difficult to resist singing or humming along to the more time you spend with them. With a new name, home, label, record and sound, Tillman finally feels ready for the spotlight. Hollywood, he has arrived.
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The ever-evolving career of Jack White remains a fascinating one. After his meteoric rise to fame as one half of The White Stripes, he suddenly became unsettled when his bandmate and ex-wife Meg decided to shut the project down. The reason given was that Meg began to suffer from “acute anxiety,” known to many as stage fright, and for health reasons no longer wanted to perform. How true that was we’ll likely never know, but she has been true to the idea of never performing again. But that destruction of The White Stripes sent Jack spiralling into some new and different projects. He had already been dabbling in side projects with his friend Brendan Benson as they formed The Raconteurs. As he turned his focus in that direction, in 2009 he was also sucked into the atmosphere of The Kills’ Alison Mosshart and became one of the co-founders of The Dead Weather. Right around that time White also began building his own record label, Third Man, into a much bigger presence by establishing a store and production offices in Nashville. He signed and worked with a number of artists on one-off records, including country legend Loretta Lynn, The Black Belles, Conan O’Brien and even Insane Clown Posse. He’s established himself as a workaholic, and given the way he moves from one project to another, probably something of an ADD musician.
One afternoon last summer while waiting for RZA to show up at his home studio for another one-off collaboration, White decided to make the most of his time and play around with some song ideas. As with so many other things he’s done recently, it slowly developed into a full length solo effort, which he’s called Blunderbuss. Does it sound like what you’d expect from a Jack White solo project? Well, yes and no. One look at the guy’s entire catalogue and you’ll notice a distinct variety that pushes back against being confined to a certain type or genre. The earliest White Stripes recordings were electric guitar-intense blues dirges. Their last couple albums played around with pianos and a host of other instruments quite a bit more, and were decidedly pop-inspired. Great as all that was, White’s work with other musicians and other bands hasn’t been nearly as fruitful. Being in bands with other superstar musicians yanks away some of his responsibility (and some might say burden), which is why his records with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather sometimes missed the mark or came off as mainstream pandering. That’s not to say his friends and the democratic group dynamic were dragging him down. White tends to work with very talented musicians, but as with any group with the word “super” in front of it can tell you, that doesn’t necessarily make things better. It’s not like many will argue that when Neil Young teams up with Crosby, Stills and Nash he’s better than when he’s alone or with Crazy Horse. Some artists are best when left to their own devices. White seems to be one of those people.
So in this blustery post-White Stripes landscape, Blunderbuss steadily ushers in the next phase of Jack White’s music career. Considering how much he was responsible for in The White Stripes, making the transition to an official solo artist should be no problem whatsoever. He tackles it with all the grace and aplomb you might expect; well thought-out rock songs that are slightly different from his more bluesy past, but with plenty of variety to try and prove he’s more than a one trick pony. Opener “Missing Pieces” has a mellotron base and some guitar for added spice, yet it feels eerily reminiscent of a White-fronted track in The Raconteurs. “Sixteen Saltines”, by contrast, is a catchy guitar-heavy rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on a record like Icky Thump. Having dabbled in a few other genres thanks to his collaborations, songs like “Love Interruption” and the title track come across as Loretta Lynn-inspired alt-country, complete with slide and acoustic guitars. He gives a big nod to soul and R&B pioneer Little Willie John by covering his bouncy number “I’m Shakin'”, then plays off those sonic influences on songs like “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep” and the rousing finale of “Take Me With You When You Go.” There’s such a great mixture of instruments used across the album, especially piano and slide guitar, that the hope of some crazy, blistering electric guitar solos becomes less and less with each passing minute. The ending of “Freedom at 21” is about the closest White comes to his old, old self, and even those fleeting moments peter out in disappointment. He’s a much deeper and nuanced person these days, and is out to prove he’s more than just a very talented guitar player and songwriter.
Speaking of songwriting, that’s about the one thing in White’s life that hasn’t changed with time. His favorite topic has pretty much always been women, and on Blunderbuss that’s no different. Throwing around plenty of psychological theories without any real knowledge of psychology in general, it would seem that Jack has issues with the female gender. This pointed article does a great job of summing it up: “What White really seems to dislike is when women choose their own boxes. He’s a famous control freak, and in his songs, women are constantly threatening his control, forcing him into playing the role of victim. His response? Vitriol.” You can hear it on “Missing Pieces,” when he sings about a woman figuratively amputating his arms and legs. On “Freedom at 21,” she’s addicted to technology, where, “Two black gadgets in her hand are all she thinks about.” White famously doesn’t own a cell phone, and while he’s not averse to things like computers and the Internet, it’s apparent why he’d be upset with the woman in the song. Perhaps most telling of all is “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy,” in which he makes somewhat veiled references to ex-wife and ex-bandmate Meg. As he took on her last name when they got married and never changed it back, he sings, “You’ll be watching me, girl, taking over the world/I’ll be using your name.” Towards the end he also goes on about letting the “stripes unfurl” and how he’ll be “gettin’ rich singin’ poor boy.” For all its lighthearted ukulele playfulness, some of those words have a real potential to cut deep, especially if you’re Meg. Neither party is commenting on them, so we’re left guessing exactly how pointed they’re intended to be.
In spite of some of the issues that Blunderbuss has both lyrically and sonically, Jack White is too good and too professional a musician to turn in something with his name plastered all over it and have it be subpar. At least with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather he had other band members to share the burden and simultaneously take credit for weaker elements. Here his strength lies in his ability to come up with compelling and catchy melodies while simultaneously shifting perspectives to keep us guessing. The same could be said about his personal life and affectations. White tends to enjoy lying to the press, and we’re never entirely sure how sincere he’s being with his lyrics either. What might otherwise appear to be maniacal or misogynistic could just be the way he wants to play it. At least he’s consistent about it. This record deals with the topic of loss virtually from start to finish, with girls, romance and relationships in general all intertwined inside that web. It’s true that they are messy, challenging and often disappointing in the end. Yet we put ourselves through all that because the good outweighs the bad in the end. The same can be said about Blunderbuss. It might not be as good as your average White Stripes record, and the intense guitar solos are seriously lacking, but White goes a long way towards proving that when left to his own devices, he’s still one of the sharpest tools in any musical shed.
You know and love Craig Finn through his role as frontman for The Hold Steady. Now, he’ll be taking on a new role: solo artist! Yes, for those of you concerned about the state of The Hold Steady, fear not, for this is just a side project that won’t affect the band – at least not directly. The entire reason Finn has chosen to go it alone was less because the rest of the band wasn’t ready and more because he wanted to explore other sounds. The Hold Steady’s music is often celebratory, bar room rock with a Springsteen-like appeal. You go to a Hold Steady show with the notion that you’ll have a wildly fun time, fist in the air and a beer in your other hand. With his debut solo effort Clear Heart, Full Eyes, Finn chooses to step back from the energy and heavy guitars, focusing instead on introspective alt-country ballads and mid-tempo rock. It’s a different side to a relatively one-sided guy, though we’re left questioning exactly how necessary of an exercise it ultimately is.
One thing that’s not in doubt are Finn’s chops as a lyricist. His topics du jour in the past have been religion, failed relationships and good times with friends. On Clear Heart, Full Eyes he maintains that same trend, though with the slower and quieter songs the fun bits sort of take a back seat. He’s not without his sense of humor on some occasions however, as evidenced on “New Friend Jesus”, riffing on stigmata with the lines, “People say we suck at sports, but they don’t understand/it’s hard to catch with holes right through your hands.” One of the main changes the lyrics on Finn’s solo effort bring are a real sense of aging and the often depressing aspects that come along with it. Where his Hold Steady characters were mostly dealing with youthful follies and general messing around, the new characters are middle aged and living in a world of regret. On “No Future”, there’s a resigned and given up mentality that ultimately results in the line, “I’m alive, except for the inside”. And the end of the record brings a laser beam-like focus to breakups and winding up single for the rest of your life. When everyone else gets married, has kids and a family, Finn’s character is alone living in a “Rented Room”. He reminisces about a woman he used to love on “Balcony”, expressing frustration in lines like, “Saw you and him out on the balcony/it was the same thing you did with me”. The record closes with “Not Much Left of Us”, about the mutually assured destruction of two people that weren’t right for one another. “The part of us that still remains is rotten and bruised/like the soft spot on a piece of fruit”, he sings somberly and with a sincerity that makes you believe he’s actually lived it, even if he hasn’t.
As much of a bummer as the lyrics on Clear Heart, Full Eyes can be, the purposeful and off-the-cuff conversational manner in which they were written maximizes their power. They overwhelm everything else about the album, and that’s a very good thing because not much else really shines here. The lack of upbeat or even uptempo numbers makes the record a bit difficult to get through. It’s 45 minutes of darker, relatively depressing material, with only a wry smirk or a wink here and there. Songs like “New Friend Jesus” and “Honolulu Blues” function as would-be singles, picking up enough mojo or a halfway decent hook to make them some of the more memorable moments on an album that mostly drags along in a blur. Much of the musical backdrop for these songs was composed by friends of Finn in bands like Heartless Bastards, Centro-matic, White Denim and Phosphorescent, and you can sort of hear their varying styles across the songs. Alt-country (complete with slide guitars & violins) permeates songs like “Terrified Eyes”, “Balcony” and “Not Much Left of Us”, while a more rock and blues mentality gets taken on tracks like “Apollo Bay” and “No Future”. In spite of the variations in style, nothing is really that far removed from anything else, and Finn’s vocals and lyrics are the glue holding it all together anyways.
It’s a little difficult to tell exactly who the audience for Clear Heart, Full Eyes is supposed to be. Maybe it is middle-aged guys living a life they never intended. In some ways that’s every middle-aged person, as we’ve all had to make certain sacrifices or put our dreams to bed on occasion. The topics discussed here are not unrelatable in the least. But do we really want to dwell on them by listening to this music? Unlike The Hold Steady’s best, this isn’t the sort of record you can throw on at a whim. You need to be in a certain mindset to truly enjoy it or relate to it. Think back to some of the more somber ballads of The Hold Steady. Think of “Citrus” and “First Night” and “Lord, I’m Discouraged” as precursors to this record. If you love those songs and feel like an album’s worth of them if your cup of tea, perhaps Clear Heart, Full Eyes will be exactly what you’ve been looking for. It’s nice that Finn was able to take some time off from his main band and craft a record that truly highlights his songwriting ability and emotional maturity, but it also doesn’t necessarily feel like the concept is worth pursuing any further. He’s had his moment to play the adult, now it’s time to dust himself off, leave the pity party and return to the celebration. The kids are waiting by the bar with their glasses raised.
Nobody is telling Cass McCombs that he should pursue a career in stand-up comedy. One listen to anything off his last couple records will tell you that the guy sounds clinically depressed. He could use a little lightening up. The irony is that some of our best comedians are severely depressed individuals. They use humor as a coping and defense mechanism, an escape from their otherwise dark lives, be it an abusive parent or navigating schoolyard politics. If somebody makes you laugh you’re less inclined to want to attack them verbally or physically. There’s also a sense of escapism in comedy, because the time spent performing makes you feel validated and appreciated. Watch the very darkly funny TV show “Louie” and you’ll get a great idea of how there’s depth and morbidity behind so much of what we laugh at. Cass McCombs is by no means music’s answer to Louis C.K., but some of his songs are intended to have undercurrents of comedy to them in spite of their pitch black outlook. Even by titling his album “WIT’S END” earlier this year the intention was not to evoke frustration, as it fits into the common phrase “I’m at my wit’s end”. He meant it more in a literal sense, as in the end of wit. Naturally, there was nothing funny about it (or so it would seem). A mere few months later however, McCombs is arguably in a different mood. As a companion piece to that, he’s now putting out his second long player of 2011, this one titled “Humor Risk”. It’s by no means a barrel of laughs, but if you can comprehend a whole lot of subtle witticisms, there are a fair number of moments on this album that will make you smile.
“Love Thine Enemy” is “Humor Risk”‘s opening track, and it examines the titular Biblical sentiment from a realist’s standpoint. “Love thine enemy but hate the lack of sincerity,” McCombs intones. Hopefully you’re able to grasp the funny part of that line, showing off how we may do what we’re told in spite of a strong distaste for it. Elsewhere McCombs has a little fun as part of a rather dark tale involving a drug smuggling operation run through the postal service on “Mystery Mail”. After seeing police descend on his house as he was returning home, the main character goes on the run only to have “the smirk is wiped from my smile/I was arrested for hopping a turnstile”. Upon being sent to prison, he contacts his cross-country drug smuggling partner Daniel, who has also been caught. “Daniel was indeed in the lion’s den/not the only lion killer in a California state pen,” McCombs amusingly intones, very much comparing his fate to that of the Biblical saint. He brings that reference back around again minutes later after his friend is killed in prison, singing, “Daniel was a good guy but a saint he ain’t”. Perhaps the most weirdly amusing track on the record though is “Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery”, in which the main character seeks to get a mannequin made in his image, and is told a philosophical story by the gallery secretary intoning that not everybody has the distinctive features required to make a good mannequin. It’s a very WTF topic to spend a song on, but it does make for a great demonstration of how not every song needs to be an all-out pity party.
One of the kindest things you could say about “WIT’S END” was how thematically sound it was. That record may have been dark and depressing and slow, but the tone very much matched up and held steady from start to finish. “Humor Risk” runs more of the stylistic gamut. The balance between more uptempo numbers and somber folk songs works well enough here, even when the lyrics don’t always match up. “The Same Thing” is a sunnier acoustic melody, but it examines the dichotomy between love and pain, arguing that such differences are essentially nonexistent. Meanwhile the nearly 8 minutes of “Mystery Mail” is markedly upbeat rock and roll for a song that’s all about drugs, prison and death. Then again, those same topics and rocking melodies worked wonders for Johnny Cash. When you reach a slice of heavy depression like “To Every Man His Chimera”, it may feel like it belongs on the last record, but McCombs’s completely over-the-top vocal performance provides a sly wink against the uber-serious grain.
The grand point of course is that while a number of these new songs aren’t the epitome of lighthearted humor, even some of the more depressing moments are punctuated with energy and playfulness that makes them much more instantly likable. In that way this record also serves as a nice counterpoint to “WIT’S END”, though they’re not complete opposites of one another. This is the easier record to digest, actually perhaps the most normal and commercially viable McCombs has ever gotten over his six previous records. Yet the pleasantries and morbid rib ticklers also vary enough to make them seem like a piecemeal collection rather than a cohesive whole. The songs on “Humor Risk” were recorded in a number of locations around the country, part of the same sessions that yielded “WIT’S END”. This is far better than a b-sides or outtakes collection and none of these songs miss their mark by much, but there’s no real anchor holding the whole thing together. It’s freeing while simultaneously a little disappointing and difficult to engage with given McCombs’s past material. Hopefully next time he can get the balance just right. If he needs some help with that, perhaps he should call Morrissey. I hear that guy has a regular stand-up gig at the morgue.
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By all accounts, Cass McCombs is not a very happy person. If the music you make directly relates to your own mental state, then depression appears to be a prominent part of McCombs’s life. Not everybody is happy all the time, nor does it make logical sense for them to be, but some people find it tough to even force a smile even on the nicest of days. It’s probably a big reason why the use of anti-depression meds are sharply on the rise, particularly in recent years. Despite this, living in a state of consistent melancholy can prove to be beneficial for many creative types, spurning them to make emotionally significant pieces of art that strike a nerve with the masses. Elliott Smith is one of the most prominent purveyors of sad sack music, and his acoustic ballads continue to draw in new fans every year despite his unfortunate death in 2003. McCombs bears a lot of similarities to Smith from a thematic perspective, along with your Nick Drakes and your Leonard Cohens, exploring the darker recesses of the mind with melodies that are simple but lyrics that are not. He scored big with 2009’s “Catacombs”, a record that stripped away most of the arrangements of his past records in favor of a much more direct approach. At that time though, his lyrics suggested at least some modicum of happiness and romanticism. Songs like “Dreams Come True Girl” and the waltzy “You Saved My Life” were heartfelt and warm, finding a comfort zone for him after three decent but not overwhelmingly great records. Now he’s back with his fifth album “Wit’s End”, and while the instrumental template remains the same, emotionally it’s as the title itself describes.
The opening track and first single on “Wit’s End” is “County Line”, a song that essentially flips the love-stricken vibe of “Catacombs” on its head. Instead of being about falling in love or being in love, it’s about the frustration of loving someone and not receiving love in return. Another, more literal way of interpreting the lyrics is to say it’s a tragic song about a town that has succumbed to the wrong kind of element, be it drug addiction (as shown in the song’s video) or urbanization or crime in general. Whatever the intention, the song isn’t lighthearted or positive in any way, even if there’s just a touch of warmth that might as well be left over from the last album. It’s almost enough to say that “The Lonely Doll”‘s title speaks for itself, but what you can’t grasp is just how deceptively innocent the melody sounds. There’s a delicately struck xylophone that adds an almost child-like wonder to the song, almost as if to soundtrack a little girl playing in her sun-soaked room with her Barbie. Precious, yes, but there’s also sadness and tears among the lyrics about being alone and not having anyone in your life to genuinely count on. The pain of loneliness appears to be the overarching theme of the album itself, to the point where McCombs has openly stated as much in interviews. Though there is a prevailing darkness and depression across the record, one of the better and more fascinating things “Wit’s End” does is examine the concept rather than wallow in it. Doing so doesn’t exactly make this a cheerier affair, but it does separate it from the plethora of other, more similarly-minded releases.
One of the most engaging moments on the album comes courtesy of album centerpiece “Memory Stain”. Starting as a rather minimal piano ballad, as it plods with an almost classical flair over the course of 7+ minutes there’s a wealth of other instruments that slowly weave themselves into the song’s fabric. The clarinet is particularly effective, but a light dose of harpsichord and some castanets do a lot towards truly evoking the sadness of those memories you wish you could erase but like a bad clothing stain just can’t. The oddball percussion on “Hermit’s Cave”, with the snare drum striking loudly at unexpected times helps to keep the listener on their toes as it otherwise simply waltzes along with piano and acoustic guitar as professional dance partners. Album closer “A Knock Upon the Door” is similarly paced, like watching a white-sheeted ghost bob and weave across the moonlit dancefloor of an abandoned mansion. Across more than 9 minutes a litany of instruments come together like some sort of ramshackle symphony that includes a couple of woodwinds (a baroque recorder known as a chalumeau being one of them), an acoustic guitar and a banjo, along with some unconventional percussion in the form of metal lightly tapping upon metal. The eerie feeling it nails down is one that had only crept through the rest of the record until that point. After so many songs about loneliness, this haunting closer is the final push, appearing to imply that the hope of company or companionship may remain unfulfilled and the only things left willing to spend time with us are the spirits of those we have lost. It is the end of the classic film “Citizen Kane”, where the immensely wealthy Charles Foster Kane wanders through his empty mansion alone – a man with more money than he knew what to do with, but no friends or family left to share it with. What good is anything in life if you’re just going to keep it to yourself? In that regard, “Wit’s End” also teaches us a lesson about people, relationships and selfishness. But that meaning is only there if you want it to be, because in those moments of true desolation where you just wish there was somebody to talk to, this album can be your companion during your dark period. As with many things in life however, it’s no replacement for a real life human being.
Here are the fine details that you’re going to read in most every discussion of the band Middle Brother. The trio of guys in this band are the respective frontmen for three separate and more popular bands; John McCauley is from Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith is from Dawes and Matthew Vasquez is from The Delta Spirit. They first got together in late 2009 after Deer Tick and Dawes toured together and had a lot of fun doing so. McCauley and Goldsmith would later get together in Nashville during some downtime with their respective bands and invited Vasquez to join them in the studio. What they really liked about the dynamic was that all of them pushed each other to become better musicians. Originally they called themselves MG&V, the simple combination of first letters from their last names, and played a secret, unannounced show under that moniker during SXSW last spring. It was also around that time period they began to record a debut album, which is what is now showing up in stores this week as the self-titled “Middle Brother”. Given that it’s been about a year and a name change since this “supergroup” first clued everyone in to their existence, what’s been the hold up? Scheduling problems apparently. The guys wanted to have proper time to go out and tour to promote the record but were all busy with their main bands and couldn’t quite commit to it last year. This year though is a different story, and the record is arriving right at the cusp of a cross-country tour that, naturally, takes them right back to SXSW where they first debuted in 2010.
If you’re familiar with all three of the “main bands” Middle Brother pulls its members from, then you’ll know almost exactly what to expect from this trio. The group dynamic is pretty even-handed, in that McCauley, Goldsmith and Vasquez all take turns playing various instruments and handling lead vocals. And even when one guy is on lead vocals, it’s reasonable to expect that the other two aren’t far behind with some strong backing harmonies. The sound is very Americana and rootsy, a healthy alt-country twang amidst a couple of more pop-driven songs. On paper it’s easy to see why Middle Brother should work given the talents behind it, but what truly impresses is just how well it really does. For their very first album after not a long time working together, the album sounds like they’ve been doing it for years, not weeks. Part of that surely comes from being musicians and having their own separate full time bands, but whenever you’re working with new people there are always some hurdles to go over in trying to play to everyone’s best strengths. This is extremely strong from the get-go though, and that lack of a learning curve only immerses you in the listening experience that much more.
“Daydreaming” starts the album with some quiet and folksy acoustic guitar that’s nothing short of lovely, save for the lyrics that begin on the lines, “Early in the mornin’, too hungover to go back to sleep/every sound is amplified, heavy lights so dizzying”. The song is one of many on the record that mentions being hungover, but really once you get past that first half of the verse it becomes about pining after the woman you love, about wishing she could be right next to you in the times she’s not there. The well-placed harmonies only add to the track’s inherent beauty, and one gets the impression that if you listened to this song while staring out the window on a sunny spring day that there wouldn’t be a better soundtrack. Neil Young and Band of Horses meet on “Blue Eyes”, a mid-tempo alt-country song with a touch of player piano and lyrics about what some might consider to be the ideal woman. Sadness permeates “Thanks for Nothing”, an acoustic ballad directed at a heartbreaker, a woman that left a poor guy in ruins. “Now the only girls I meet all look for hearts that they can fix/but mine is more like a kid that has gone missing,” Goldsmith sings in a very defeated way. For every person that has had a partner you were in love with just crush that in the cruelest way possible, there is meaning to be pulled from this song. Things get genuinely fun on the song “Middle Brother” (on the album “Middle Brother” from the band Middle Brother…just to fully clarify), a strong country guitar groove that brings everything from handclaps to tambourines and piano. It’s a rollicking track that’s about being the “forgotten” middle child in a family and doing things like learning to fly an airplane to “make my mama proud” and “get my dad to notice me, even if I have to fly it into the ground”.
The centerpiece of the album is a cover of The Replacements’ “Portland”, which is nice in part because there aren’t nearly enough good Replacements covers out there (seriously). Middle Brother does a fairly standard rendition of the song, but the acoustic guitars shine just a little bit brighter in the mix to give it a very 2011 feel rather than the slightly muddier 1997 original. First single “Me Me Me” is a fast-paced and super fun, combining some serious piano pounding, furiously strummed acoustic guitars, and a raw vocal performance from McCauley. The harmonies are ripe and so is the hook, to the point where this is probably one of the best songs of 2011 thus far. If you want to be sold on this band, “Me Me Me” is where you’ll cash that check. Things take an interesting turn on “Someday”, which with its 60s girl group backing “oohs” and “aahs” and Vasquez’s throaty vocals sounds a lot like a throwback pop number rather than the Americana material that’s come before it. The song is great and worthy of being a future single, but it feels out of character compared to the rest of the record. Then again, if Middle Brother is about allowing the personal styles of all three band members to properly mesh in one singular album, that is a touch of Delta Spirit and makes sense from that viewpoint. Goldsmith delivers his most powerful and intense performance on the six minute “Blood and Guts”, slowly stirring himself into a rage as his relationship quickly disintegrates around him. “I just wanna get my fist through some glass/I just wanna get your arm in a cast/I just want you to know that I care,” he says just before his voice soars out of him with a force that truly does feel gutteral and blood curdling. There’s genuine emotion pouring out of this song and sad though it may be, without a doubt people will strongly identify with it. After the portrait of hard life touring that is “Mom and Dad”, “Million Dollar Bill” closes out the record in acoustic ballad style, with all three guys taking the lead on separate verses and holding up backing harmonies. It’s just a little bit lackluster of a way to end things, but beautiful nevertheless.
When talking about Middle Brother, there are a few bands you can look to for comparison. The Band, The Traveling Wilburys, Crosby Stills and Nash (sometimes Young), and their more modern-day counterparts Monsters of Folk are all apt names to be throwing around here. Funny also that each one of those is a supergroup of sorts with that Americana-type sound. So what Middle Brother is doing on their self-titled debut can’t particularly be called unique. What makes a project like this special are the talents involved and whether or not they’re put to full use. In this case, where not only is there relative equality between band members but also each has their own moment in the spotlight, things seem to have turned out exceptionally well. These guys really do push one another to be better in one aspect or another. There are many moments of brilliant lyrical content and/or vocals that reach exactly the right pitch to perfectly convey the points that are trying to be made. For a record about the overused subjects of women, drinking and life on the road, McCauley, Goldsmith and Vasquez prove there’s more that can still be said in a relatively original way. Is Middle Brother a better project than the three bands each of their respective members came from? Yes in some aspects, and no in others. It’s a highly worthwhile side project, really. Like all those other aforementioned “supergroups”, you can’t deny there’s magic when these three get together, but chances are they wouldn’t exist without their regular day jobs. So after some touring, McCauley will return to Deer Tick and Goldsmith to Dawes and Vasquez to Delta Spirit and such, and they’ll all put out potentially great new records that way. Then somewhere be it a year or five from now, they’ll get back to this collaborative project and hopefully the same chutzpah of this first record will continue on the second. In the meantime, be sure to see Middle Brother as they tour this spring. McCauley and Goldsmith are pulling double duty as Deer Tick and Dawes are playing full sets on the tour as well. Have a look at the dates below, and pick up the album – it’s a folk-driven delight.
March 2 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club *
March 3 – Boston, MA – Paradise Rock Club *
March 4 – Providence, RI – Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel *
March 5 – Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall of Williamsburg *
March 6 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom *
March 9 – Philadelphia, PA – Theatre of Living Arts *
March 10 – Rochester, NY – Water Street Music Hall *
March 11 – Toronto, ON – Opera House (with Deer Tick only)
March 12 – Chicago, IL – Metro *
March 13 – Madison, WI – Majestic Theatre *
March 14 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue *
March 15 – Lawrence, KS – The Granada Theater *
March 17 – Dallas, TX – Club Dada *
March 18 – Austin, TX – Brooklyn Vegan, Partisan Records, and KF Records Present: A Free SXSW Day Party at Swan Dive / Barbarella (SXSW)
March 19 – Austin, TX – Auditorium Shores/Ground Control Touring Showcase (SXSW)
April 3 – San Francisco, CA – The Independent ^
April 4 – Santa Cruz, CA – Moe’s Alley ^
April 5 – Santa Barbara, CA – Soho %
April 6 – Costa Mesa, CA – Detroit Bar %
April 7 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo %
April 8 – San Diego, CA – The Loft %
* = with Deer Tick and Dawes
^ = with Blake Mills
% = with Jonny Corndawg