March 7, 2011

Review: Middle Brother:: Middle Brother

Cream were dubbed the world's first supergroup; The Highwaymen were country’s; and then there was the Traveling Wilburys, perhaps the greatest of them all: a band comprised of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. Harrison, one of the Fab Four, once admitted that he never knew what it felt like to play in a band until the Traveling Wilburys. Supergroups were once something to behold, but the magic and allure faded with bands like Velvet Revolver and Audioslave acting more as life rafts for aging rock stars than outlets born of creative desire. Monsters of Folk—three of folk rock’s brightest stars rekindling the magic of a shared tour—sounded so promising on paper, but the record came out flat and contrived. Save for the single "Say Yes," the album was three songwriters trading songs with no discernable input from one another.

Thankfully, Middle Brother more than gels. In fact, they play like a band. Sure, the songwriters divide duties here, but instead of awkward and unnatural segues between tracks, John McCauley, Matt Vasquez and Taylor Goldsmith seem acutely aware of each other’s strengths and play to them. McCauley, as the hungover joker-in-chief, leads the band on a time capsule-like experience of classic foot-stomping rockabilly and folk storytelling reignited anew. With the ramshackle, uptempo, hollering Vasquez and quiet, contemplative, Angel-voiced Goldsmith acting as bookends, the album is a fine example of pacing and balance. Whereas Monsters of Folk consisted largely of mellow acoustic singer/songwriter shtick with the occasional shot of Jim James, Middle Brother’s debut showcases a confident band that knows both when to take it slow and when to lay the hammer down.

There’s no wrong turns or missed opportunities here, just fistfuls of highlights: McCauley nailing the Replacements’ boozy and road-weary “Portland;” Vasquez’s sharp tongue in the rollicking riff-heavy “Blue Eyes;” and the three-way verse trade-off in “Million Dollar Bill.” But perhaps no one shines brighter than Goldsmith on “Blood and Guts,” an updated version of his song with Simon Dawes—his former band with Blake Mills. The plaintive scorcher is the type of breakup song you wish you knew when you were going through the experience, as it gets to the physical and elemental shit of it with exceptional insight and honesty. "I want to sign with blood and guts, so someone will know that I'm here," sings Goldsmith, who if normally playing the part of Bruce Banner, peaks with a few Hulk moments here imbuing his vocal chords with impressive emotional ferocity.

I hesitate to call it a classic—only time will tell—but Middle Brother certainly has all the makings of one. Exceedingly re-playable, it’s the kind of record that song-for-song fits in with any mood at any moment and then suddenly takes over. No, they're not the Traveling Wilburys, but Middle Brother is certainly the closest approximation we've had in a long time.

Middle Brother - "Me, Me, Me" (from Middle Brother)
Middle Brother - "Middle Brother" (from Middle Brother)

Check out the earlier versions of Goldsmith's songs from Simon Dawes' 2007 Daytrotter session.

Simon Dawes - "Wilderness" (Daytrotter)
Simon Dawes - "Blood and Guts" (Daytrotter)

Middle Brother

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