Album Review

Middle Brother "Middle Brother"

Brian Ahnmark
When the principal songwriters of three acclaimed folk-rock bands join forces, the temptation is there to apply a certain label typically reserved for the likes of Cream, CSNY, or the incomparable... Audioslave.

But let's not. In fact, let's not even mention the word.

In reality, the fable is as simple as this: John McCauley (Deer Tick) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) are comrades and songwriting brothers-in-arms. Instead of offering the vague “Hey, we should get together and record sometime!” as a hollow shrug-off, McCauley made an earnest collaboration proposal to Goldsmith, who agreed to meet McCauley in Nashville in 2009. The pair then enlisted a third voice, Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit.

Their powers combined, they are Middle Brother – with an assist from a little brother, Griffin Goldsmith, on drums.

The shotgun sessions that yielded Middle Brother's self-titled debut album effectively captured lightning on wax, seizing polished performances without dulling the raw edges or emotional sparks that ignite the 12 songs. Be assured this isn't some half-baked collection of leftovers. It's a surprising album of pensive reflection, a rumination on the kind of bruises that don't heal. The combination of compelling writing and unique voices sounds completely alien in today's musical landscape – and desperately vital, and needed.

The overall chemistry and sense of brotherhood is immediately palpable to the naked ear. For the most part, the principal songwriter sings lead on his own compositions, backed by the warm harmonies of the others. But each middle brother brought varied offerings to the sessions, exposing the many sides of these gifted writers.

McCauley is the wild man, his tuneful rasp shredded by years of hard living shoehorned into a brief span. Goldsmith is the introspective crooner with a temper. Vasquez is the schizo, one moment pure brown-eyed soul, the next sheer terror. These personalities emerge in the songs.

McCauley penned the rollicking “Me Me Me,” a startling rockabilly blast that motors along on a distorted guitar groove and twinkling piano. Meanwhile, McCauley's “Daydreaming” is a gentle, even bashful confession of unrequited adoration.

Quiet moments bring out the best in Goldsmith, particularly on the resigned “Wilderness” – the only song on the record presented solo-acoustic (appropriately so). But Goldsmith's performance on the epic “Blood and Guts” is the album's definitive peak. As he hollers, “I want to sing with blood and guts” in the uppermost atmosphere of his range, the keen sensation is that he's leaving blood and guts all over the microphone.

Vasquez offers the standout rock tune, “Blue Eyes,” which feels borne of Laurel Canyon circa 1969. Goldsmith's lead guitar twang bridges the gaps between Vasquez's tale of true love's discovery. But Vasquez flips his creative switch for the doo-wop shuffle of “Someday,” and delivers a volatile lead vocal on the Lennon-esque waltz of “Theater.”

The lovely closer “Million Dollar Bill,” composed by Goldsmith, epitomizes the collaborative spirit of the artists, as all three middle brothers sing a lead verse. It's four minutes of heaven, and conclusive proof that Middle Brother is a (fine, I'll use The Word) supergroup.

A supergroup – minus the drug addiction, squabbling, fisticuffs, head-butting and ego clashes.

The way a supergroup should be: Talented friends sharing, complementing each other, honoring the simple grace of the almighty song.