Wednesday, April 20, 2011

i want that you are always happy

The Middle East from Townsville are a very special band, perhaps the next big (alternative) thing in Australian music. Their much anticipated first full length album, I want that you are always happy, has now been released.

Does it live up to expectations?

that was then ....

I saw The Middle East live in a tent at the Black Stump music festival in 2007. The six-piece, augmented by a nine voice choir, performed 45 minutes of creative, occasionally chaotic, soaring and arresting music - enough to prompt me to buy their two albums.

The Middle east on stage at Black Stump, 30 September, 2007. See a brief section of video here.

The albums confirmed the band's promise and the eclectic range of their music. The untitled album they shared with Sleeping in Trains contained four songs of anthemic folk-influenced rock. The Bats and the Brave and Gold are both gems.

The Recordings of the Middle East (the earlier 8 track version) ranged from folkish (like the much loved Blood) to extended Sigur Ros like orchestral rock. Many of the lyrics were somewhat dark - this live version of Pig Food, complete with choir and 7 piece string section is representative.

.... this is now

The new album marks yet another departure for The Middle East. It's not as accessible as Blood, not as expansive as Pig Food. It's generally slow-paced, reflective; darker, yet more peaceful, though there are a few up-tempo and edgier songs. The music is mostly sparse, with lots of acoustic guitar and reverbed piano, some alt country slide guitar and plenty of space and time. The band's musicianship is good, and Jordan Ireland has a lyrical and expressive voice (though some songs might carry more weight if the lyrics were printed out).

Generally the critics were surprised that it wasn't Blood2, but most love it. Here's a few reviews: Rabbit Hole Urban Music, Mess and Noise, The Music Network, Sputnik Music, The Vine, The Brag and The AU Review. One of the few dissenting voices was the Sydney Morning Herald's Bernard Zuel (usually a reliable guide), who felt the band hadn't done themselves justice.

It's a good album with many evocative songs. First impressions are that there isn't anything quite as epic as the best of their earlier albums, though the music is more even in quality. But I am still making up my mind - I think it will take time to gain a full appreciation of the depths of their work.

Listen to The Land of the Bloody Unknown or watch a live performance of Mount Morgan and Hunger Song from this album. Visit The Middle East Myspace page or The Middle East website. Check out the words of the superbly written Blood.


I said: "I think it will take time to gain a full appreciation of the depths of their work". So having spent a lot more time with the album, here is a brief second opinion.

These are good songs and the musicianship and arrangements are subtle but good. Many of the songs sound sparse but listen behind the upfront instrumentation and there's often some nice things going on with synth, harmonica or guitar. The more I listen, the more I appreciate the music. And some of the lyrics deserve a good listen - Months, Ninth Avenue Reverie and Hunger Song, for sure, and probably Mount Morgan (which is virtually indecipherable) and Land of the Bloody Unknown, and others too. The ones I can work out are mostly a bit dark and melancholy.

And yet .... the sparse arrangements don't really show their musicianship and arranging skill to full advantage (how much playing and harmony singing was Joseph required to do here?), and soft and sometimes unclear singing prevent gems like Months and Ninth Avenue Reverie having their full impact. Most reviewers agree the listener has to work at it, and that's no bad thing, but I think this album bears the marks of a troubled recording history and compromises, as Rohin admitted here

So, wonderful music, if flawed in execution. And I could settle for that, in hope that their next would be even closer to the magnificent they are capable of. But with the announcement that have played their last concert, that seems a sad and desperate hope now.

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