TERRY GROSS, host:
Middle Brother is a trio formed by members of other bands - John McCauley from Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, and Matthew Vasquez from Delta Spirit. The three friends have put together a collection of songs that rock critic Ken Tucker says reach across decades of rock, folk and country music.
(Soundbite of song, "Daydreaming")
MIDDLE BROTHER (Music Group): (Singing) A Bloody Mary afternoon, waste my time out in the sun. Hum myself some melodies, maybe I can sing you one. Maybe I could find...
KEN TUCKER: There's a singer-songwriter intimacy in many of the songs on Middle Brother, as though John McCauley, Taylor Goldsmith and Matthew Vasquez were sharing secrets and anecdotes and decided to set them to music and share them with us. All three men belong to bands that trade on folk, blues and country traditions; even their up-tempo songs are less rave-up rockers than hand-clapping foot-stompers.
(Soundbite of song, "Mom and Dad")
MIDDLE BROTHER: (Singing) Stay hydrated from a double shot. Get my nourishment from a punch in the gut. Never really felt I had the best of luck. I got a big big mouth that just won't shut up.
Hop in the car turn the radio on. Out from the speakers a familiar song. Head down the road start to hum along. I made it all the way home and left the TV on.
But I'm going to learn to fly an airplane. And it's going to make my mama proud. I'm going to get my dad to notice me, even if I have to fly it into the ground. Ooh.
TUCKER: This being a group composed of thoughtful guys with guitars, there's a certain amount of bad behavior to be chronicled - bouts of drunkenness, hangovers, one-night stands, and a general air of doomstruck melancholy. Sometimes it's maudlin, but more often, as on Matthew Vasquez's song "Theater," it can describe dreams with a precision that matches the sharp snap of the drum beat.
(Soundbite of song, "Theater")
MIDDLE BROTHER: (Singing) I went to the theater but nobody came. It was just silence after you played. Well, I learned my lesson, a soldier play on. Just let it ring out until you are gone.
TUCKER: That vocal sounded a little Neil Young-y, didn't it? We shouldn't be surprised. Middle Brother is less a band than a showcase for three separate sensibilities, each helping the other to achieve the sound he wants. The effect is strongly reminiscent of another group of disparate musicians coming together for what had been conceived, at the time, as a one-off project: Crosby Stills & Nash in 1969.
It's probably no coincidence that when the band first performed publicly, they billed themselves as MG&V, just as Crosby Stills & Nash used CSN as their abbreviation. Middle Brother connects to that tradition, and perhaps tellingly locates its best lyrics not from one of their own compositions, but courtesy of Paul Westerberg in their fine cover of The Replacements' "Portland."
(Soundbite of song, "Portland")
MIDDLE BROTHER: (Singing) Shared a cigarette for breakfast. Shared an airplane ride for lunch. Sitting in between a ghost and a walking bowl of punch. Can you play a little hunch? Predicting a delay on landing. I predict we'll have a drink. Lost my money on the first hand. Got burned on a big fat king.
And your ears just want to ring. And your eyes just want to close. Nothing changing I suppose. It's too late to turn back, here we go. Portland, oh no.
TUCKER: If I had to give the nod to one Middle Brother above the others, it would be John McCauley. The Deer Tick singer's voice always cuts through any piece of music with a reediness that's razor-sharp. Listen to the way he borrows a few bars from the Elvis Presley hit "Don't Be Cruel" to become rockingly self-absorbed in "Me, Me, Me."
(Soundbite of song, "Me, Me, Me")
MIDDLE BROTHER: (Singing) You get me out of trouble, as much as you could (unintelligible) If you lie in your bed, put lies in your head. If he interrupts the feeling that he cannot comprehend it's me me me me me. She put me on the floor...
TUCKER: Although their press release says Middle Brother are young rock songwriters striving to carry on the tradition of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, it's pretty clear that so unassuming an album as this is never going to have the cultural or commercial impact of those men. Still, as a semi-super-grouping of cult indie faves, these guys have their hearts in the right place, even if their heads are in the clouds and their livers are in the bar.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the album "Middle Brother" from group of the same name.
You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.