Brother and Sisters

Brothers and Sisters

(Calla Lilly; 2006)

By Conrad Amenta | 16 October 2006

Austin’s newest alt-country offering Brothers and Sisters are prime candidates for the “dude, they’re just making music” method of defense, apropos and worshipping all kinds of harmless myths: the band that tours because for some reason they’re compelled, and then writes about The Road being a harsh mistress; that speaks nostalgically about long gone Good Times; that sings to some disembodied and revered You who haunts their thoughts. This band can see It when they look in someone’s eyes, and it’s without an ounce of sarcasm or pretension that Brothers and Sisters want you to know that, hey, it’s all good. In fact, the moment I decide to analyze a band that romanticizes the idea of “Sunday living / seven days a week,” I’ve already shot myself in the foot. Why have things got to be so heavy? We’ve got a couple of girls playing tambourine for us, man.

Full critical disclosure compels me to include that …And You Will Know Them From The Trail of Dead’s Conrad Keely is in this band, but it couldn’t possibly matter less. It’s not so much Keely’s Wurlitzer and fiddle you’ll notice as it pops in and out, here and there, as front man Will Courtney’s pervasively thin voice and lyrical keening. Courtney sings for people for whom the thought “Come on baby / give me one night / I know it’s crazy but it just feels so right” isn’t eye-rollingly cliché, and I’ll be the first to admit that there’s not a whole hell of a lot wrong with that. I’ll even go so far as to say that, in the context of what a person sees on the nightly news, this kind of myopic, self-absorbed genre tribute can be downright comforting insofar as it keeps us all from losing our minds.

But then, nagging again from the peripheries, there’s reality. In my recent review of Sean Lennon’s Friendly Fire, I suggested that the rampant fatalism employed in his lyrics were a knowing and topical capture of post-9/11 America’s rediscovery of the imaginary apocalyptic, using his mom’s reflexivity and dad’s wide social lens to achieve this. Lyrically, Brothers and Sisters is Friendly Fire’s exact opposite: an album that attempts to sound timeless in highly charged times, and so lives knowingly with full on blinders, refusing to even acknowledge that there are problems. In places it makes Courtney, and the vague, universal problems he sings about, sound ludicrous, especially given that the genre Brothers and Sisters are accessing is chock full to the brim of political precedent and notable narratives. It’s understandable, if not admirable, that the band chooses not to take the soapbox or confessional route, but it also has real effects on the listener’s ability to enjoy their music. Brothers and Sisters is a perfectly respectable alt-country album, and like most perfectly respectable alt-country albums, it supposes that being alt-country is substance enough. In the absence of any contemporary or artistic relevance, Brothers and Sisters needs to nail it musically, conjure up something truly remarkable or unique, and that this may be too much to ask of any debut album is evidently borne out here.

As the album progresses, even being human is a bummer; “Old age is bringing me down,” Courtney philosophizes. By now you’re either fine with this kind of go-with-the-flow approach to profundity or you’re not, but even those most forgiving of the band’s stunted ambition will admit that rhyming “denied” with “lied” and then “tried” in the opening lines of “Old Age” sounds lazy. Elsewhere, you’d never know that there are eight people in this band. Each song stays faithfully and rudimentarily on track, never deviating far beyond the occasional inclusion of a delay effect or predictable harmonizing. Again, there’s little to take much umbrage to here, but likewise not much to feel too passionate about.

Opening track “New Life” is as good as Brothers and Sisters gets, mixing ethereal vocals with warm, acoustic strums, but even it seems limited by wasted potential. Brothers and Sisters simply aren’t trying hard enough to live fully up to the traditions that lay the groundwork for their existence as a band, let alone expand upon them or make them their own