Middle Kid’s latest set, “Yeah, Sure,” is proof positive that great things can come from being neither the oldest or the youngest. The brainchild of Zack Willis, these six songs harken back to the days when bands like Harvey Danger could write songs like “Flagpole Sitta” and sell hundreds of thousands of records. It’s grunge music for the pop-rock set, the kind of stuff that inspired Brand New to concoct “The Devil And God Is Raging Inside Of Me,” which, of course, subsequently inspired bands like Middle Kid to make records like this some 10 years later.
Take a look at the internet and you’ll find that Willis almost gleefully describes his music as self-indulgent, though he wears it in the best way possible: as a badge of honor. And that’s a good thing — even the flannel-est of flannel-wearers can struggle with self-awareness, no matter the cliche they seem to embody. Middle Kid, for better (and not for worse), embrace their schtick here, making it all the more affecting, all the more sincere to the casual listener.
As is the case with similar bands, Middle Kid’s forte is driven largely by Willis’ storytelling chops. “Black Out” is a balladeering trip through depression, subconscious and a late night that gets harder to forget by the spin. “The incredible string band / Delivers its melodies / Haunting at half speed,” the group’s leader intones in his dramatic quiver marking the final stop before the intensity kicks up and the guitars explode. It’s as evocative as it is transfixing, as hypnotic as it is vivid.
The same formula shines on “53rd Birthday,” which waltzes along at the saddest of lonely paces, Willis opening with a stone-cold, “On your 53rd birthday, you sat on the floor / Looked up at me and said, ‘I thought there’d be more.’” It eventually opens up to a Heavy Lights-esque frenzy of rock, but not before the singer paints his macabre picture with more colors than a 5-pound bag of Skittles. Deliciously despairing and wildly poignant, it’s hard to find a more gut-wrenching story in recent local music lore.
Success continues even when they amp up the tempo and aggression. Opener “Shell” recalls Seattle’s most lucrative musical years, a thundering bass guitar anchoring the groove as simple, solid roaring drums hold things down with consistency and taste. It’s the sound of a band you heard in the background of a young adult television series in 2001 that you wish you knew. The track is novel in its nostalgic bent.
“Middle Child” continues the Superchunk textures while adding a handful of musical starts and stops that should quench the thirst of an astute listener’s penchant for variety. Straight-forward and in your face, its aggression is highlighted by the occasional static placed on Willis’ voice, making for particularly antagonistic moments that shine as much as they inspire. Plus, at little more than two minutes, it’s a lesson in the importance of keeping things lean and mean.
Still, these guys are at their best when they opt for melancholy over muscle. “Dear Uncle” actually does feel like an outtake from the aforementioned Brand New classic, its burdensome undertones making for a dark atmosphere that isn’t nearly as prominent in the mainstream as it should be these days. Meanwhile, ender “Commoner” combines both the downtrodden and pugnacity that Willis so carefully displays elsewhere. It’s the moment where everything comes together, right down to the chaotic last 30 seconds, where the noise rises as the structure dissipates.
But don’t let that mayhem fool you: Middle Kid know exactly what they’re doing with “Yeah, Sure,” and they do it with confidence, competence and candor. Not bad for a project that once released a four-song EP called “Whiner.” Though if this is the sound of a rock band complaining, let the record show that life isn’t worth living shall it be devoid of all disappointment. And when that frustration breeds music that sounds this inspired, this indelible, this satisfying, you can’t help but realize that sometimes being in the middle of the pack has its perks.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***