The Middle Men

Three Short Acts

(Debauchery; 2003)

By Amir Nezar | 10 October 2007

Journal Entry - God, Kylie makes me sweat, is there something wrong?

Something rather embarrassing happened to me today. I sat down to review The Middle Men's Three Short Acts, having just finished watching, for the first time, Silence of the Lambs. With the near-overwhelming psychological tension of the movie fast subsiding, I felt my spirit in need of limbering. My reviewing duties dictated I get cracking on The Middle Men before tackling my second review.

But I have to confess, diary, that, well, I had just downloaded a guiltily indulgent amount of Kylie Minogue. She had nothing to do with this review, I knew, but something about Her Hotness weighed upon my mind. To be frank, well…I really wanted to listen to Kylie instead. With any luck and a bit of prodding I'm going to try to get Body Language as the lead review for our site one of these weeks. . . (That's right, Mr. Reid, I won't stop until you've promised me!)

Subsequently I was plagued by unexpected, indeed, disturbing questions. I didn't just like Kylie because of her sweltering videos (god, those revealing golden bun pants! I was nearly fired from Circuit City for putting "Spinning Around" on constant repeat on all the computer displays, to the neglect of my duties…) - I actually enjoyed Kylie's music itself! Was I bisexual, then, to enjoy such flagrant disco (and to want to move my ass so bad to it)? What of my "indie cred?" The Middle Men sounded like a rock band of at least, pun intended, middling talent; yet I was willing to sell my soul for dance synths that were pure cheez. And Kylie's "passion" in her songs, her sexy voice, was, upon serious reflection, as cheap as, oh, I don't know, Todd Aman's mom on a slow night. Why Kylie over The Middle Men?

I repres-um, I mean, answered these questions after a bit of consideration. No, I was not bisexual. My "indie cred," didn't mean a damn thing to me, so long as I was honest, and no, Todd Aman's mom wasn't cheap. On a slow night she was still expensive as fuck. And, well, I wanted Kylie over The Middle Men because while these four Velvet Underground/R.E.M./Stones/Springsteen lovers could actually play instruments and most likely wrote their own lyrics, Kylie had some kind of "passion," some kind of capturing quality to her, even if it was fabricated. Essentially, The Middle Men are a skilled group of musicians who are hopelessly derivative, writing no more than a few inspired songs. It just doesn't feel like they're really trying. At least Kylie's beats can rock both my body and the party! And hearing her voice lights my fire.

Hearing Three Short Act did not light my fire. Opener "Down In It" will lay out the schematics of rest of the album for you right off the bat: a combination of bluesy piano and guitars, limber bass, mildly energetic drumming, the occasional organ, and largely flat, if in-tune, vocals. Put concisely, this is an album of exceedingly safe throwback country-inflected tracts. Lead singer John Whitaker occasionally combines Counting Crows' Adam Duritz's trademark waver with a more general Michael Stipe croon; on "Wonderful Impressionist," he sounds so close to Stipe that it's as though R.E.M.'s main man was making a cameo, except rattling off mediocre lyrics without conviction. The Middle Men's lyrics generally come off well enough, despite stumbling on inanities like "I wish I were a communist / I wish I were your friend / I wish you'd let me back inside / All the places you have been," from their horribly weak country ballad "I Wish I Were a Communist." It rings like a less sincere Jason Molina tune, its hooks entirely forgettable and its lyrics an exercise in tedium. When their lyrics are relatively strong, like on "Wonderful Impressionist," it's usually thanks to imitating the kind of metaphorical style that Stipe had, with clever one-liners that come off like something Stipe would have held in his pocket of lyrical acrobatics.

Nonetheless, The Middle Men do have some obvious technical proficiency -- their guitar and bass interactions are always at least mildly interesting, and their drumming is rarely boring. On "What It Was," they even play with some interesting rhythm dynamic and chord changes -- it's one of the band's few standout tracks; but as such it is, so to speak, cubic zirconium in a field of coals -- coals that have the potential to be energized, compressed, tightened, and made into diamonds that have some kind of new take on old masters. But for now they just smear on the memory momentarily. In fact, by the time that I got through three listens to The Middle Men, I was more inspired to revisit their superior influences than to give them too many more chances. They had decent hooks, yeah, and "The Big A" had a kind of instrumental energy and a good hook that meshed decently well with its vocals, but then again, there was Kylie sitting on my desk in a disc of condensed sex-inspiration. And I knew, for a fact, that she'd be more fun.

With some more of their own character in their efforts, with a little bit more sincerity beyond their predictable lost love ballads, with just a bit more inventiveness and attentiveness to lyrical quality, The Middle Men might make a solid album. But until then, they'll have to play second (or fourth) fiddle to Kylie. Which isn't such a bad thing, because, let's not lie, almost everyone plays at least second fiddle to Kylie. They just don't have her bod-I mean, voice.

Reid, by God that review will be up on our site by two weeks from now. Mark my words.