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Middle Kids - Lost Friends Music Album Reviews

Middle Kids - Lost Friends Music Album Reviews
The Australian trio’s debut album deals in radiant, anthemic indie rock, balancing doubt-ridden lyrics with clear-eyed execution.

For a new band, Middle Kids come to the table with some ready-made talking points. Their lead singer, Hannah Joy, is a classically trained pianist who grew up singing church hymns. She recently married her multi-instrumentalist bandmate, Tim Fitz. Their drummer, Harry Day, studied jazz at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. And in short order, they’ve found an enthusiastic supporter in none other than Elton John. And yet none of these CV highlights have any bearing on what the Australian trio actually sounds like. Despite their highbrow credentials, Middle Kids are, at heart, a band for the people. With Joy largely forsaking the piano for guitar, they deal in the sort of radiant, anthemic indie rock that sounds right at home on in-store satellite-radio playlists or in the background of pivotal scenes on prime-time dramedies. And lest you think Joy and Fitz’s matrimonial dynamic puts Middle Kids in an advantageous position to usurp Yo La Tengo as the most unabashedly romantic trio in the indie-verse, their debut album uses its lacquered sound as a bonding agent to hold together vivid portraits of relationships falling apart.

Lost Friends follows last year’s self-titled EP, whose rousing, Sir Elton-approved single “Edge of Town” reappears here to provide the thematic anchor for a record that’s all about fumbling your way through insecurities, indecision, and embarrassments. In singer/guitarist Joy, the band has a captivating mouthpiece who deftly navigates these emotional minefields with equal parts panic and poise, thanks to a naturally trembling voice that can harden into tough-love sentiment. Often, it’s directed at herself: On the country-tinged title track, she despondently waltzes through the wreckage of friendships she deliberately destroyed by “saying things I wouldn’t say” with just enough palpable regret to elicit our sympathies, while the inviting nocturnal atmosphere of “Bought It” conceals a cry for help from the back of the cab she used to escape an uncomfortable encounter with an ex. Joy’s no-filter straight talk can also be a source of comfort: On the rootsy rave-up “Don’t Be Hiding,” she offers warm assurance to a lover with body-image issues by singing, “You don’t have to sell it, I am sold/So give me all your garbage and your gold.”

But the sound of Lost Friends is as celebratory as its lyrical tone is serious. The trio often comes off like a band twice its size, coloring in the standard guitar/bass/drums arrangements with a rich palette of piano, strings, pedal steel, and electronic textures. With breezy sing-alongs like “Mistake” and “On My Knees,” they effectively thread the winsome early-’90s alt pop of Belly and the Cranberries with the big-tent ambitions of ’00s-era ensembles like Arcade Fire and the National (whose go-to mixer, Peter Katis, rides the faders here). But while Lost Friends’ slow-building ascents and soaring choruses function as necessary release valves for the unrest bubbling up from Joy’s lyrics, over the course of 12 tracks, a certain identikit quality takes hold. A number of tracks rely on the same trick, dropping out the instrumentation on the final chorus for dramatic effect (or, in the case of “Maryland,” resorting to the ol’ truck-driver gear change for extra uplift). “Please” is especially shameless in its bid for festival-conquering glory, as it rides the rumbling-tractor intro groove of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” en route to a generically glossy chorus that sounds like it was grafted on by a Top 40 song doctor.

If Lost Friends is ultimately defined by the contrast between its doubt-ridden lyrics and its confident, clear-eyed musical execution, the closing track, “So Long, Farewell, I’m Gone,” provides a tantalizing glimpse of what Middle Kids are capable of when they situate Joy’s nervous ruminations within an equally turbulent backdrop. Building up from an ominous repeated piano chord into a swirl of militaristic drum patterns, electronic oscillations, and crashing crescendos, the song foregrounds Middle Kids’ latent experimental tendencies without obscuring their intrinsic sing-along appeal. “When I was young I decided I was weird,” Joy declares; hopefully, she’ll stay true to her inner child, and in a few years time, we’ll be looking back at Lost Friends as Middle Kids’ Pablo Honey-style precursor to a more unpredictable path.

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