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