The Middle East’s debut is the sonic manifesto of a group eager for distance from oppressive categorization. I Want That You Are Always Happy (Spunk, 2011) blends the Queensland natives’ folk flair with post-rock and slowcore nuances, producing something entirely neither-nor. Impressively self-sustaining, the hour long album does not sacrifice coherency for eclecticism. That is, of course, if we forget that the first three tracks exist.
I will address raised eyebrows shortly. First, a digression:
“I’m a sucker for sax, man,” I plead with my girlfriend when I want to blow some of her cash on a Sonny Rollins or, if I’m feeling passive-aggressive, Anthony Braxton LP. But better than the key-clacking gospel of virtuoso sax’s most prominent emissaries is the revelation of sax. Sax from a lapse. Sax whence thought once to be no sax. Critically lauded, 80s-pop pastiche, Kaputt (Merge, 2011), built its staircase to my 2011 Top 1 on the foundation of deliciously camp sax from left field. In brief, sax rocks. Sax, sax, sax sax sax.
Our astute readership may deduce from my prose ode to sax that within I Want That You… lies at least one sax riff promising to no-notice erupt and blow away. Upon forking over $30 for the record, some may think they’ve made a mistake. We were promised sax, they’ll exclaim, and I’ll be doomed to wonder for the rest of my days why they only read up to the first sentence of this paragraph.
There are fourteen tracks on the album. “Black Death 1349” is the name of the first. Sax is a lascivious jackrabbit. The first eleven minutes are amassed raccoon carcasses next to an interchange on-ramp.
All right, admittedly, excess harshness on my part. I’ve excused my own irreverence because The Middle East violently (don’t cite) went defunct some short months following album’s release. “Coping (psychology) is the process of managing stressful circumstances.” I happen to love this album like the Black Death of 1349; love grants license to deride. Provided with the context of no less than ten complete listenings, I find that the first three tracks are incompatible with a sax-ed universe.
“Black Death 1349,” “My Grandmother was Pearl Hall,” and “As I Go to See Janey” pall in somber chord progressions and lugubrious lyrics; no welcome abodes for sax. They’re dirges compared to the dithyrambs of late album (“Dan’s Silverleaf” and “Hunger Song”). Weary and wearying “My Grandmother was Pearl Hall” spans five minutes and twenty-eight seconds – it holds the distinction of third-longest track. Perhaps not accidentally. The Middle East may have sequenced the weakest tracks at album’s forefront to ward off the viewers of Crazy, Stupid, Love who fell in love with “Blood” off a 2009 EP. Indie reparations? Regardless, The Middle East took the wrong cues from clear influence, Carissa’s Wierd (sic). With the redolent-of-a-sea-shanty, “As I Go to See Janey” the album stirs, but it takes a birthday party drop-in from Jesus himself to inspire it whole.
From the get-go “Jesus Came to my Birthday Party” cauterizes the memory of the previous tracks, and sax regains hope of a home. The romp’s minute mark stands stark in a work with several other stark marks. Jesus brings something to the party to liven it up. Titlewise, the subsequent track, “Land of the Bloody Unknown,” strikes as a drag, but instead proves a zest. Even amidst the trudge of “Very Many” and the Godspeedian sampling of “Sydney to Newcastle,” the band never loses the eminent grace of partying with Jesus. “Sydney to Newcastle,” which placed any earlier would have death-knell’d the album, finds no better purpose than segue to the massive “Mount Morgan.” The Mayans toiled decades in mud for monuments as these. In “Mount Morgan” I Want That You… aptly climbs to an apex, and thereafter ditches its limbs and resolves to soar.
The result of flight is “Months,” my second-favorite track (sax always comes first). This is a track for which personal nostalgia is all but guaranteed. The melody near the two minute mark is another one of those “starks”; it’s Eastern, Western, Southern, Northern – a catholic sound bound to merit chronic replay. Or it would, if the follow-up “Dan’s Silverleaf” didn’t stop you from pressing the ‘previous track’ button with its first chord. Absolute magic, I say.
On that, I’ll end the track-by-track analysis. Our astute readership will note that I’ve yet to single out the sax-bearing track. Our astuter readership will guess that it is one of the three tracks not mentioned in this review. Our astutest readership will reason that I don’t wish to spoil the sacred “revelation of sax” (see: third paragraph). A friend maintains that the song in question is Floydian, and I maintain that the sax in question is indelible.
Volatile variety defines I Want That You…. The Middle East demonstrates an ability to abandon the standard ‘indie folk’ fare on a whim and have it feel fated, as if no other course was possible for the song. Maybe too erratic an effort for their own good; the band didn’t survive. Serial hedonists tread the fine line between ecstasy and immolation. It’s “the lesson of the moth.”
I Want That You… is an album of mothlike one-offs: in but one song is there sax, in but one is there a gorgeous female voice, in but one is there an electric guitar solo. Last.fm’s charts attest that but one of the Middle East’s songs has been a commercial success.
They made but one full-length, which is fantastic track-four-to-end (and worth at least $10, if not $30).