In picking up a new album, or releasing a body of work, timing is everything. The self-titled release by Middle Brother is a victim of poor timing. It should have come out in the fall or winter, not as the spring thaw began to set in and we look forward to sun and happiness. I have come to expect this from John McCauley projects – Deer Tick’s last release came out during the summer time. Instead of enjoying being able to wear shorts and sandals along with max-output sunshine days, I was left to wonder things like: “just how much bourbon can I drink in one sitting?”
McCauley’s new project, Middle Brother, has a similar effect on me. Teaming up with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit, the listener is given a triple-shot of unrequited love and introspection. There are some musically bright tracks on Middle Brother’s debut, like the 50s sock-hop piano striking of “Me Me Me,” but a majority of this album is coated in a layer of sorrow.
“Daydreaming” starts with McCauley’s larynx shredding vocals: “Early in the morning/too hungover to sleep” and “listen for a while to the neighbors having sex/wishing I could lay my aching head upon your breast” and sets the pace for this bummer train.
Bear in mind, this is not a “paste your face with a Zoloft smile” kind of Sad Panda experience. This is “hug your knees to your chin and reflect upon life after a thoroughly disappointing breakup” thoughtful and bleak folk music. In the acoustic finger-picking in “Daydreaming” is enough to make you want to start drinking grain alcohol out of a jar and think about every bad decision you have made in your life.
In terms of music that triggers an emotional response, this album knocks it out of the park. I want to keep it in a sub-set of my library dedicated to days of reflection upon my past. If there was ever an album to play at home by yourself on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon, this is it. But it is not bereft of complete happiness. The previously mentioned “Me Me Me” lifts the listener out the doldrums with 50s style zeal. The alt-country “Blue Eyes” is not devoid of hope and is on a constant loop track in my head most mornings.
Where I find Middle Brother lacking is in how wildly disparate their musical styling is. As a folk-rock power trio from three different backgrounds, their compromise to each other plays like they are cherry-picking from their original bands instead of creating something truly new. They vacillate between mellow folk, alt-country and 50s rockabilly. If you like variety in your albums, then this will probably give you what you’re looking for.
As long as you are also looking the soundtrack to heartbreak.