[1 March 2011]
Growing attached to a supergroup is like growing attached to a temporary tattoo. They’re a great idea in the moment, but they’re just going to fade away in the end. With the exception of CSN (and sometimes Y), very few of these often ill-advised projects make it past the first date. Nobody hates supergroups more than your local record store clerk. This is the poor soul who has to print up one of those partition deals even though he knows in his heart of hearts that the latest from Coverdale and Page, the Thorns or Them Crooked Vultures is going directly to the 99 cent bin once the band members return to their main squeezes.
Hoping to buck this unfortunate trend is Middle Brother, an alt-country trio featuring John McCauley of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Matthew Vasquez of Delta Spirit. These three high and lonesome young troubadours were all wearing “promising new talent” ribbons a few years back. While the jury is still out on Dawes, the Deer Tick and Delta Spirit were last spotted spinning their respective wheels. Maybe when your band releases the sort of album that makes your fans wonder why they liked you in the first place, it’s time to fill your trunk with PBR tallboys and head on down to Nashville for a serious bro down. The rollicking self-titled album born of this boozy alliance is somehow far more satisfying than has the right to be.
Pre-sold as a drinking person’s Traveling Wilburys, Middle Brother’s specialty is indeed rowdy, harmony laced alt-country. A telling yet somewhat pointless cover of the Replacements’ Don’t Tell a Soul-era B-side “Portland” serves as a mission statement for this project. The young men of Middle Brother are aspiring gutter poets who pray at the church of Paul Westerberg. They’re all seeking beauty amid the chaos they’ve created around them, endlessly shrugging off the army of angry ex-girlfriends and disappointed parents on their trail. McCauley assumes the role of chief hell raiser and the album sticks closest to script when he leads. Saddled with the sort of nasally singing voice that actually makes some people angry, McCauley seems content with the narrow scope of his abilities. He gets the biggest boost from his buddies here as they barrel through the reckless honky tonk of “Middle Brother” and the hooky “Me, Me, Me”. While McCauley always operates at the same speed, he’s the still go-to guy lyric wise. There’s a good chance the line “I’ve got a dick so hard that a cat could scratch” will follow him for the rest of his career.
Goldsmith and Vasquez are largely left to their own devices and it’s the diversity of their material that gives the album its surprising emotional pull. Vasquez seems to realize that you can only sing so many songs about hangovers so he doesn’t even bother trying. He tips his cap to Neil Young on the crunchy “Blue Eyes” and the bluesy lament “Theater”. Backed by a chorus of female voices, he crafts a successful tribute to sock hop rock on the buoyant “Someday”. Initially, Goldsmith seems like the odd man out. His sweetly sung acoustic ballads stand in contrast to all of the mayhem going on elsewhere. It’s his near-murder ballad “Blood and Guts” that outright steals the show. Vazquez and McCauley step aside here while Goldsmith builds a towering chorus that evokes Elvis Costello (via Will Sheff). It takes a gifted songwriter to pull off a line like “I just want to get my fist through some glass/I just want to get your arm in a cast” without frightening people. Instead, Goldsmith makes his anguish palpable and the results are staggering.
The fellas don’t get around to trading verses until the clever album closer “Million Dollar Bill”, leaving the door wide open for future collaborations. Although their livers might disagree, these gentlemen seem to bring out the best in each other and it’s hard not to catch a buzz from their camaraderie. If they can keep the substance intake to a reasonable level, Middle Brother could have many good years ahead.