Middle Brother is no Cream. Then again, not all supergroups can be the “Sunshine of Your Love”, reaching widespread success in the admirably short span of two years. Clapton aside, Middle Brother, a new band consisting of John McCauley of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit are surely the cream of the crop of the indie-folk world (see what I did there?). Really, though, the tantalizing combination of their respective voices, the sweet harmonies mixed with characteristic qualities of each home band swirls together to create Middle Brother, a rich, promising debut that may make it difficult to let them go back to their full-time obligations.
Whether you look at lines such as wanting a “good girl who’ll wear a black bra” (as on “Blue Eyes”), “stay[ing] hydrated from a double-shot”, or having, crassly, “a dick so hard that a cat couldn’t scratch” (as on the title track), the trio clearly spend their time in Middle Brother indulging unabashedly in the masculinity and debauchery of the classic South. Abundant references to Nashville, where the disc was recorded, litter the album, as do an overall sonic feel of the morning after a great night at the honky-tonk bars on Lower Broadway. It works, though; The album is a twangy, fun testament to the classic country themes of booze and heartbreak.
Middle Brother kicks off with lead single “Daydreaming”, a slow-paced ballad mourning a lost relationship and drowning it with alcohol. The track serves to establish the three-part harmonies that quickly become the crux of the album, as each member will eventually take lead vocals and leave their mark on the album. “Blue Eyes” follows, an energetic track with a sloppy piano accompaniment, furthering that same theme, only with a boozy, twangy, three-part harmony on the chorus. The crucial aspect of this album’s success is this precise lack of a spotlighted member: Middle Brother isn’t a Deer Tick project featuring other singers or anything of the sort. Sure, there are visible moments of each member’s influence (“Thanks for Nothing” could easily be off of Dawes’ self-titled LP), but none prove to be overwhelming. The vocals are equally divided as to create a new identity, a sometimes sweet, always raw vocal power supported by solid, traditional alt-country instrumentation.
A highlight on the album is the ambitious and, on the whole, successful cover of The Replacements’ “Portland”. The rework incorporates the gruffness of McCauley’s voice along with shuffling percussion, and Goldsmith’s smooth voice on backup. The allure of the open road and the elation of the line “It’s too late to turn back, here we go!” remain true to the original, taking care to maintain the true spirit of the song.
Whereas “Portland” champions freedom, “Wilderness” presents a stark contrast to the easy-going attitude that characterizes the first half of the album. “I’m most happy when I’m dreaming of success,” Goldsmith admits, which doesn’t exactly fall in line with the hedonistic indulgence previously depicted. It functions as reassurance, though, that the entire Middle Brother adventure is a musical one, and not exclusively a party record. The rest of the album adds in keys, cooing female backup vocals, sunny guitar melodies, and more lyrical narratives that combine the two halves, resulting in a strong finish, with tracks such as “Me Me Me”.
Middle Brother is nothing revolutionary, but it is an enjoyable throwback to the good ol’ days of classic Southern living. With superb vocal harmonies, fun lyrical narratives, and an all-together looseness and freedom previously unseen in each of the members’ main projects, Middle Brother seeks attention. But unlike the proverbial middle children, they will actually receive it. On the titular track they howl, “Made some bad decisions, I shouldn’t go back,” but whatever decisions they’re referring to, it certainly doesn’t include Middle Brother, as this collaboration offers a sum at least equal to, if not more, than its parts.