CD Review of Happy Fun Party by The Middle States
The Middle States: Happy Fun Party
Recommended if you like
Fleshtones, The Flamin' Groovies, Tom Petty
Label
Effen
The Middle States:
Happy Fun Party

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD

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T
he self-hype behind this band proclaims that Replacements lovers will dig this, which sort of makes sense considering it hails from the Twin Cities, just like the 'Mats. They also try and make comparisons to Robert Pollard, to whom the band's creative force Wes Morden (singer/songwriter/guitarist) bears resemblance. But good old Bob's solo stuff and the Guided by Voices canon includes a singular sound, a catchy canon – at least at first, until about the 700th record to which one listens as Pollard opts for quantity over quality. That might not be the comparison a band wants to draw. And the 'Mats, bless their hearts, could barely get it together for more than a couple songs at a time. This band is more focused than either of those groups. It's a perfect 1980s indie-rock guitar-pop sound. No synths. Fuzztones. Fleshtones. Chesterfield Kings. Children of Nuggets. Plimsouls. Those bands acted as if the 1970s never happened. They adored the Beatles and obscure 1960s bands that had few hits, if any, like Shadows of Knight, Herman's Hermits, the Seeds, Status Quo.

As such, the Middle States stick out like a sore thumb in today's scene: too polished and mellow to fit in with the rough-cut Black Keys crowd, too unpolished to hold court with smoother underground favorites like Wilco and the New Pornographers (although at times the Middle States' harmonies sound just as sterling as the Pornos in places). The band carries more than a little resemblance to ancient Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – the version predating the Traveling Wilburys, before Petty let Jeff Lynne pollute the sound with his trademark pounding acoustic rhythm guitars. Not only does the Middle States' rhythm section bash away precisely a la "Breakdown," but Morden puts a few little Petty affectations in his singing, too.

In other words, they're awesome! A diamond in the rough that no one will ever hear about – except you.

Most of the songs are upbeat and catchy, but a few standouts include "Thought Control," a cruelly sarcastic skewering of Republican Rule of the 'naughts – keeping in mind this was written and recorded long before President Obama was a lock, in a crazy right-wing area of the country still trying to determine if and how Al Franken's joke candidacy turned into an actual gubernatorial winner. "Friday Night" is a powerful earworm on the Big Star scale, walking us pub patrons through the band's preconcert routine, showing how the pros outweigh the cons, mostly. "Synthesize" rips off the Doors' "L.A. Woman" intro to great effect, melding the familiar line with the "Gimme Some Lovin'" beat. These guys are pros.

And then there's "Tumbleweeds." You will look at your iPod display in disbelief, not quite sure how a Tom Petty song (circa Southern Accents) got mislabeled as the Middle States. But it's not a ripoff or a paean; it's a gorgeous, countrified rocker (complete with droning Hammond organ in the background, a trademark Heartbreakers touch) featuring Morden putting on a spot-on Alabama drawl. Musta been in a cover band that did Skynyrd at one point. If you're into hooky harmonies, Nuggets-y pop, and synth-free music devoid of studio trickeration – in other words, grown-up rock – the Middle States is an excellent pick.

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