Musical masterminds John McCauley (of Deer Tick), Matt Vasquez (of Delta Spirit) and Taylor Goldsmith (of Dawes) have joined forces to turn out what I think is an upbeat yet heartbreaking, return-to-your-roots debut album. The self-titled debut for this trio, Middle Brother, steals the best qualities from each artists and melds them into a collection of tunes that ticks back and forth like a metronome between upbeat, gritty rock, to melodic and soul-bearing ballads (Rolling Stones Interview).
Before listening to this album, I was only familiar with McCauley and Deer Tick, so I wasn’t completely sure of what to expect from the other two members. I was secretly hoping that McCauley’s raspy, beautiful voice would be the lead on all of the songs. While his voice graces the lead spot on 5 of the 12 tracks, I enjoyed hearing the variation in song and tone with Vasquez and Goldsmith singing the lead as well. I am not sure if the lead singer is the primary songwriter, but the emotion, connection, and personality of each song seems to fit the lead vocalist.
As is true with most albums, there are songs that I instantly love, some that will eventually become favorites, and a select few that I am always bound to skip while listening in my car. While I am no expert on the creation and playing of music or finding the hidden meaning in lyrics, I am an expert on what I like and don’t like, so here is my initial impression of each song:
1. Daydreaming (McCauley lead vocals): The intro to this song make me daydream of my boyfriend waking me up on a Sunday morning by playing these delicate cords, but the second that McCauley’s voice hits my ears and he starts talking about being hung over, the imagery shifts to a picture of him in his torn Levi’s and cotton t-shirt, slumped in an old 70’s orange velvet chair playing his guitar and staring out the window, hair messed up, cigarette embers burning away in the ashtray as smoke rises up and clouds the sun beams that break through the window into his small, messy bedroom. This is one of my favorites on the album. The harmonies are beautiful, and the lyrics sketch out a ‘day in the life’ of the writer who is left lonely, daydreaming about the girl who he may never get. The music is simple, as it should be, and the story is one to which we can all relate.
2. Blue Eyes (Vasquez lead vocals): Is it just me, or is Tom Petty singing on this track? Vasquez has a Petty quality to his voice that drums up images of The Traveling Wilburys, although I am not sure who McCauley and Goldsmith would be (perhaps Dylan and Orbison, respectively? ha!). This is a sweet chasing love song about a gruff, foul-mouthed musician who got a taste of the best, lost it, and wants it back. Funny how some guys can’t seem to see what they have until it’s gone. VIDEO
3. Thanks for Nothing (Goldsmith lead vocals): According to Goldsmith, this is a song for anyone who has ever felt like “damaged goods” after getting out of a relationship. Although the pace slows down a bit, I enjoy the soulful sad tone in Goldsmith’s voice. It makes me believe he’s writing from personal experience…one that most of us have felt at one or more times in our lives. I enjoy how McCauley’s gritty voice can complement Goldsmith’s in the harmonies, and then Vasquez chimes in for the “Oooooooooh”s. The best line of the song (“Now the only girls I meet all look for hearts that they can fix, when mine is more like a kid that has gone missing“) so effortlessly portrays a common scenario in love, where a hopeful girl finds a guy who is broken but not ready to be fixed, and thinks SHE will be the one to turn his life around. All too often, these girls get hurt, fail, and move on to the next heart to mend. This song makes us recall the fresh feeling of heartbreak, and remember how sarcasm and resentment often accompany our disappointment and feeling of being left with no silver lining. VIDEO
4. Middle Brother (McCauley lead vocals): This song picks up the pace again, and transports the listener to a dusty, old saloon, where McCauley is sitting on a rickety stool, playing and singing joyously about never living up to the expectations of others, yet hanging on to the hope that someday he will. In the dark corner of the bar a hunched over drunkard in a ragged shirt and vest bangs away at the keys of an old upright piano, giving the rock-n-roll an old-timey feel. Perhaps the lyrics resonate with those who have been the middle child…never measuring up to the eldest and never as cute and innocent as the youngest. The tone of the song is feel good and upbeat…a great song for driving with the top down. Unfortunately, a part of me gets a little depressed for McCauley and the absence of approval. VIDEO
5. Theater (Vasquez lead vocals): This is probably my least favorite song on the album. I think it’s just the pace…melancholy, drab, and slow. Honestly, I usually hit the skip button on this one. The take away message seems to be that this life won’t tell you nothin’…nothin’ but lies. Next.
6. Portland (McCauley lead vocals): This song shifts back to our rocking drifter McCauley, now with a So-Cal, Mexicali vibe. Images of a hitchhiking trio come to mind…trying to make it to a show on the West coast. They get picked up by an old leather-faced farmer in an beat-up Chevy pick-up. As they are transported as far West as possible, the boys find themselves singing and playing in the truck bed, as dust billows from below the truck tires. As they travel along, they come across the characters who help create the stories in this song.
7. Wilderness (Goldsmith lead vocals): Goldsmith raises the bar on this song. As the sweet strum of the guitar opens the song, I am immediately reminded of McCandless’ travels depicted in “Into the Wild“. I wonder if Eddie Vedder would agree. The song depicts a common struggle between charting one’s own path and being influenced by the path and thoughts of others. It is the shortest song on the album, but it’s packed with lyrics that make you listen to it over and over…and endlessly question your own imbalances in life.
8. Me, Me, Me (McCauley lead vocals): That old torn and tattered upright piano player makes an encore performance in this song, but this time he channels some Little Richard. Mix that in with a Chuck Berry-like guitar solo, and you have a song that is sure to get you moving. I can’t quite tell if McCauley is pleading with his lover to leave her dishonest and shallow man, or if that man is actually him.
9. Someday (Vasquez lead vocals): Apparently Middle Brother also has a troop of female do-wop background singers hidden away somewhere…very reminiscent of Little Shop of Horrors…FEEED ME SEYMOUR! The ladies swooning in the wings lend this psuedo-love song some swagger, while Vasquez’s lyrics tell the well-known tale of the guy who should care about the girl in front of him, but can’t seem to drum up the desire to seal the deal completely. Without apology or remorse, Vasquez sings, “I’d love to give every part of my best. Maybe someday I’ll just give you the rest”, implying that if he can’t give it all, perhaps what is left will suffice. Is he a hopeless romantic who wants to find his way to love, or just a typical alley cat who can’t seem to choose between the tabby down the street and the calico next door?
10. Blood and Guts (Goldsmith lead vocals): While I have no idea what singing with Blood and Guts means, Goldsmith has some great lines in this song (“I’ve got a friend who speaks but doesn’t talk. And I can play the part all right but I didn’t make it up“. “If you’re breakin’ my heart, you won’t get no help from me”). He seems to struggle with reinventing himself and moving on in the wake of heartbreak, and his anguish and disappointment translates clearly through both his somber tones and bouts of yelling. I just wish I knew what the hell Blood and Guts meant.
11. Mom and Dad (McCauley lead vocals): This may as well be called “Middle Brother: Part 2″. His efforts to make his parents proud fall to the wayside and his life as a limit pushing, burnin’-the-candle-at-both-ends rock star takes over. While I can imagine that these lyrics depict the lifestyle of a large portion of touring rockers, I can’t help but think that McCauley takes it to another level. After watching the Rolling Stone interview, it’s apparent that he’s not used to being awake during the day and he’s seen his fair share of crazy nights. However, somewhere between the loose women and free shit, perhaps McCauley is expressing a sliver of regret for not speaking up when he felt his life begin to tailspin.
12. Million Dollar Bill: Appropriately, the closing song gives each of the guys a chance to collectively bleed their hearts out for us one last time. Each man conjures up a way to stay in the heart, mind, and life of the woman who left him behind. But rather than dwell on the pain that accompanies the loneliness of lost love and wish her the same pain, in their absence they plan to create a better life for her in the future. It’s a somber song with a wish for redemption. The last verse ends somewhat abruptly, making me want one more harmonious chorus from the boys. I guess that is the sign of a good song.
While I know my attachment and affection for each of these tracks will shift with time, I can confidently say that this album will be one of my top Summer soundtracks. My interpretation of the lyrics are merely just visions that my mind creates while I am listening to their songs, and likely have nothing to do with the true meaning behind the words. To sum it up…I give those boys an A- for their first effort, and hope to see them play these tunes live, very soon.