Baby Brother – Strange Things (2011)

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A great groovy mess, Baby Brother combines roots rock and punk in the most intriguing of ways. The result, Strange Things, lives up to its title, and that’s not a bad thing. Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., Baby Brother somehow combines Johnny Cash and the Screaming Females, Junior Brown and the White Stripes, BR-549 and the Queens of the Stone Age. The result is something that might strike some as too brash, but it’s never, ever boring.

Take the title track, for instance, which sounds like Oasis meets the Replacements meets Roy Orbinson. As lonesome as the lyrics are, the song rattles along with like a ragtop wreck with a bad muffler. That dichotomy, balanced just right, powers Strange Things to interesting new places. The opener, “Texas,” finds lead singer and guitarist Jeremy Beazlie hoping for a final resting place in the Lone Star State. But this is no cowboy lament. Instead, Beazlie comes out squalling over a smeared, angular riff by lead guitarist Vincent Vitek, who was actually born and raised in Texas.

The propulsive “Abuse” then adds a thumping beat, courtesy of drummer Ian Hardie and bassist Ben Longwell, and a yelping chorus right out of the Ramones. That makes the lithe acoustic beginning of “Go For It,” which follows the story of a hurt boyfriend in the style of early Joe Jackson, sound like an echoing epiphany. Before long, though, Beazlie and Vitek are back to constructing scraggly guitar lines: Tracks like “Sad Kid” and “Til the Phone Died” could have been deep-blue ruminations in another band’s hands. Here, they become furious, redemptive cries, swirling in a white-knuckled rage then accepting things with an edgy ambivalence.

As a vocalist, Beazlie is a beautiful wreck too, sounding like a paper shredder one minute and a dementing lounge crooner the next.

“Explode,” featuring a fierce, armed-services rhythm by Hardie, charges forward with a tough whine reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins. But it never actually explodes, a brave choice from Baby Brother that adds this crackling energy to the song. “Long List” chugs along with a buzzing locomotion before cresting forward into a sun-splashed, if pleasantly ragged pop chorus.

Baby Brother starts with the billowing melancholy of the Cure on “Crisis Issis,” but runs the song until there’s no oil in the crankcase anymore. As Beazlie repeats the line “my intentions are good,” “Crisis Issis” continues to pick up speed. By the end, the track has become a blur of grinding menace.

Then, just like that, Baby Brother unclenches its collective teeth for “Lived on a Farm,” with a nasty little riff straight out of the Keith Richards songbook. Beazlie also sounds something like Mick Jagger, circa Exile on Main Street, on “David,” the warbly country-punk number that follows. But Baby Brother doesn’t settle for the easy name check, ramping “David” up at the end until it reaches Phil Spector-ish proportions.

Similarly, “Ghost Train Robbers” has a snappy, rockabilly beat, and an insouciant vocal to match. At least, at first; It’s not long before Beazlie has begun channeling the Clash, howling and flinging himself about. On the punky “Rodeo Song,” a stamping, profanity-laced putdown, Beazlie’s wild-eyed vocal is perfectly matched and then outflanked by Vitek’s solo. His outburst of aggressive playing, so perfectly coiled, ends up feeling more spiteful than the naughty lyrics. And none of it, of course, sounds anything like what you might expect from the track’s title.

Call it a final example of how often Baby Brother brilliantly plays against expectations. “Very strange,” as Beazlie sings on “Long List,” “but in a good way.”

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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