Album of the Week: Middle Brother, Middle Brother

This is the best rock & roll album to come out in the past five years. It may not be the most groundbreaking or the best-known, but for me it is the purest distillation of what rock & roll is. It’s an album that is boozy and crude in some places, frustrated and lonely in others, propelled by guitar solos, backbeats, and background vocals. It’s not over-produced, and no one sounds like they’re trying too hard. But that doesn’t mean the songs don’t pack a wallop. In fact, they hit harder because they sound organic and vulnerable. Middle Brother sounds like you’re sitting in on a particularly good jam session in someone’s crappy apartment, where everyone has played with everyone else for years and you got handed you a drink when you walked in.

If you’re familiar with a certain corner of the rock neighborhood, the names here will be familiar. Taylor Goldsmith, John McCauley, and Matt Vasquez all play in other bands (Dawes, Deer Tick, and Delta Spirit, respectively). Those other bands are good, but I haven’t heard much out of them that can rival Middle Brother. It’s the rare supergroup that manages to have a distinct identity outside of their members’ other projects. There are overtones of a Dawes record, or a Deer Tick album, but at the end of the day, it’s a Middle Brother album and nothing else.

Matt Vasquez’s “Blue Eyes” is the song that always catches me first. There’s wiry electric guitars right up front with piano for sonic balance and a bass that pulses but doesn’t drive. It’s the kind of mid-tempo rocker that you don’t hear much anymore outside of old Neil Young records. For me, though, it’s Vasquez’s lyrics that keep me coming back. He has a creative way with the most tired rock & roll tropes: “I’ve been looking for some time/in a world full of pennies for my dime/but it ain’t easy to find/a girl like you to be mine.” And like the best lyricists, he has a talent for providing sparse description that allows the reader to fill in the blanks, ultimately producing more powerful images than he could write. “She’s a Southern girl without a drawl/she’s a good girl who wears black bras/the only one who could make me crawl/but she’s too sweet to force me.” If you want an argument for rock & roll as poetry, you might start there.

The album starts in a state of melancholy, but “Middle Brother” (no, not the band, no not the album, but the song) reminds us of two things. First, that life is not all pining over lost loves, and second, that a good record needs variety if it is going to satisfy. This track starts with time-tested elements—bass lines, handclaps, and tambourines, and boogies with them all over the place. The guitar solo is Chuck Berry-inspired, with double stops and chromatic slides, and the piano break is pure barrelhouse. The song doesn’t need a rhythm guitar or much of a drumbeat to maintain momentum—it’s like a weird perpetual motion rock & roll engine. The lyrics are about a total loser who manages to get through life even though he brings everything crashing down behind him. He’s the kind of guy you can’t help but like, even though the back of his junky ’78 GTO is filled with beer cans.

It’s worth pointing out that another ingredient for a great rock & roll record is the ability to pull stylistic influences from different places without slavishly copying that style of music. “Thanks for Nothing” could be a lost country song from the ’70s, while “Someday” has a great Motown feel to it, a pinch of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover,” and an early Beatles harmony. “Portland,” the only cover on the disc, could pass for a folk song, but John McCauley, who sounds like he eats cigarette butts, gives it the same ragged edge the original had. Goldsmith rounds out the backing vocals, giving great texture and contrast to the track’s vocal section.

This looks like maybe I took it, but I promise I just found it on the internet.

And as fun as songs like “Someday,” or “Me Me Me” are, it’s true that darker feelings are never too far away on this record. “Mom and Dad,” a McCauley number, provides a frank look at the grind of touring: “Mama gave her camera to her little star/all she gets are pictures of hotels and bars/no Big Ben/no Statue of Liberty.” For all the mythologized freedom of the open road and the rock star lifestyle, the main character fully lives “in other people’s hands.” “No control, no lack of shit for free,” McCauley sings, just before a brooding, distorted guitar comes in. The irony is that the only balm is the same thing that causes the pain: music.

Finally, inevitably, we get to “Million Dollar Bill.” Goldsmith previously recorded it with Dawes, but it comes into its own here. It is without exaggeration one of my favorite love songs of all time, quiet, mournful, bittersweet. The band does the right thing by dividing the lead vocal among all three singers, which creates musical interest and speaks to the theme’s universality. It’s a simple song, devoid of the big guitars and bass lines that you find on the more upbeat tracks. Like a gemstone, it remains unadorned and beautiful.

I have listened to this album a lot since a friend first gave it to me in 2011. I now have it on pretty much every medium except for cassette tape, and that’s only because they didn’t make one. I have shared its songs with friends and with lovers, in cars and in dorm rooms up and down the eastern seaboard. I even shared them with two strangers on a street corner last weekend, when they asked me what the song I’d just finished playing was and where they could hear it again. That’s the kind of reaction I aim for since I wrote the first Vintage Voltage post a year ago today. I hope it’s worked.