Top Ten Albums of The Year, Roots Rock Edition: Nothing Is Wrong By Dawes, Middle Brother by Middle Brother

(Taken from The Album Isn’t Overrated)

Today’s music ain’t got the same soul, I like that old kind of rock and roll

Dawes- Nothing Is Wrong

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Naturally, this is a little bit of a cheat for my top ten list, for these are two albums that are thematically linked but could stand on their own merits for deserving the top ten status.  Middle Brother is of course made up of John J. McCauley III of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit, but to confuse you more, I’ll start with Dawes.

Back in 2009 when Taylor Goldsmith and co released their stunning debut North Hills many fell under the spell of their rootsy, classic California rock sound.  The record’s charming analog sound boosted by the bare bones recording process, the band couldn’t even afford a proper bass amp.  With the success of singles like “When My Time Comes” and “That Western Skyline”, Dawes burst onto the independant music scene, and became quick friends with rock legends like Jackson Browne and Robbie Robertson.  Yet for a band often compared to the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Dawes proved they were equally capable of crafting their own material, bouyed by Goldsmith’s succinct, yet poetic couplets that anchor each song.  

For their next LP, Dawes wanted to capture more of a live feel, songs that both reflect life on the road as well as the travels along the road of life. Their sound would also be considerably more polished than on the earthy North Hills, while keeping the same roots format. That album would become Nothing Is Wrong.

The album starts on a Jackson Browne-esque note, with the propulsive “Time Spent In Los Angeles” featuring Bennot Tenoch (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) on the organ. Goldsmith crafts a narrative of a man reconciling his past and the road with lines like “These days my friends don’t seem to know me/ Without a suitcase in my hand/ And when I’m standing still/ I seem to disappear” “When people ask me where I’ve come from/ To see what that says about a man/ I only end up giving bad directions/That never lead them there at all.” The themes of self identity and the passage of time come up again and again in this 11 song album, but it’s to Dawes’s credit that they don’t drag.  The harmony break on “My Way Back Home” is gorgeous, fading into a great guitar solo.“Fire Away” features blistering guitar work behind a nice call and response interlude. “So Well” boasts some of the tighter vocal work on the album, and there’s something you can find you like about every song.

Goldsmith’s vocals provide a solid warmth throughout, and the interplay between him and the band is top notch (which includes his brother Griffin, on drums).  Griffin also proves to be a capable singer, leading the band on “How Far We’ve Come” and providing solid call and response vocals on “Fire Away” a song that also features Jackson Browne. “Million Dollar Bill” might contain some of the best lyrics on any song this year, both a song of longing and scorn, for which Taylor provides lines like “When it hits me that she’s gone/ I think I’ll be a movie star/ play the finest men the world has ever seen/ so when these lovers that she’s found/ show her ways they learned to talk to her/ behind each perfect word there will be a little bit of me.” Come for the music, stay for the harmonies and lyrics.

Label: ATO

Length: 51:49

Listen If You Like: The Eagles, Crosby Stills Nash, Neil Young, Jackson Browne

Mood: Driving on a Sunny Day, Sitting by a Fire at Night

Top Picks: 

“Million Dollar Bill”

“If I Wanted Someone”

“So Well”

“Fire Away”

Production: 8/10

Lyrics: 9/10

Vocals: 9/10

Overall: 9.1/10

Middle Brother- Middle Brother

Super-group is a label that is often doomed to fail, whether it’s by a lack of comraderie or just each others egos getting in the way. Middle Brother is luckily blessed to have neither problem, they just want to have fun making music.  And McCauley, Goldsmith, and Vasquez tear through a bunch of craggy folk and rock to make Middle Brother a great album to listen to.It’s not often that you can find three lead singer/songwriters sharing the spotlight and do so seemlessly (Monsters of Folk, on the other hand seemed more like a solo record by each artist rather than a cohesive effort) but this is what makes Middle Brother stand out among its 2011 peers.

McCauley has a voice that you will either love or hate, but if you happen to find yourself in the former camp (think of a gruff nasal Bob Dylan) Goldsmith and Vasquez manage to provide the perfect harmonic backing. They pull this off in spades on the album opener “Daydreaming” that features some sparkling acoustic guitar work that wouldn’t be out of place on a James Taylor record.  Elsewhere, Middle Brother pumps up the fun on tracks like “Blue Eyes” and “Me Me Me”, the latter being probably one of my favorite songs of the year, a song that never takes itself too seriously and it could have just as easily been an outtake from the John and Paul session that produced “The Ballad of John and Yoko”. Meanwhile “Someday” is a true blast from the past, featuring a 50’s melody.

“Portland” is the one cover on the album (though its to their credit that it fits organically with the rest of the material) originally done by The Replacements but once again the harmonies are terrific and the acoustic work is charming.

These songs aren’t always the rollicking type, Middle Brother likes to inhabit the more downtrodden aspects of the rock lifestyle, finding itself an equal muse to happy drunks and sad drunks. The Matt Vasquez led “Theater” finds itself sonically connected to Neil Young’s slower numbers, while Taylor Goldsmith led numbers like “Wilderness” and “Blood and Guts” describes the ravaged soul of a broken hearted man.

Overall this album is a blast, you can feel the respect the members have for this style of music, not one bit is kitchy, but a ramshakle, loving respect for true rock and roll.

Label: Partisan

Length: 48:57

Listen If You Like: Any of the members individual bands (Dawes, Deer Tick, Delta Spirit), Neil Young, The Replacements

Mood:  Visceral, Wistful, Hitting the Bottle (Both for the good and the bad)

Top Picks: 

“Daydreaming”

“Blue Eyes”

“Someday”

“Me Me Me”

“Portland”

Production: 8/10

Lyrics: 8/10

Vocals: 9/10

Overall: 8.5/10


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