Middle Kid’s Zack Willis writes the kind of songs that feel like they could have been written anytime in the past 20 years. Bands like Middle Kid are a testament to indie rock’s staying power – that melodic guitar music isn’t going anywhere. And while the nod to bands like Death Cab for Cutie or Weakerthans is ever-present on their new record, Queen of Rockledge, Middle Kid have their own bittersweet and sometimes goofy spirit that is a breath of fresh air. With songs about Ryan Gosling, Harry Potter audiobooks, and crippling self-doubt, Queen of Rockledge is a confessional indie rock record sure to satisfy your itch for pop melodies.
The album opens with “Embody.” Descending stair-step chord progressions and plodding, floor-tom led drumbeats make this song a near perfect mid-tempo melancholic rocker. As the song crescendos into the chorus, Willis’ vocals become more and more distorted. It’s a genius production choice. Moving into the second song, “Competitive,” the chorus on the guitars showcases the band’s affinity for 80s giants like The Cure and The Smiths. Willis’ voice is quivering in this song, and moves from single-tracked to double-tracked in another excellent production choice. Austin Braswell’s drumming on this song is some of the smartest indie-rock drumming I’ve heard in a long time, with perfectly placed snare rolls adding to the excitement of the track. Likewise, bassist Andrew Bromhal’s almost-walking bass-lines in the outro are a musical high point for me on the record.
Single “Queen of Rockledge” is an upbeat bop that will be sure to have your head nodding or your tapping your foot. During the verses, guitarist Evan Braswell adds some very spicy leads poking out from palm-muted rhythm guitars. This was the single for a reason – it’s an absolutely engaging pop song. “Sorcerers Stone NC,” about the Harry Potter audiobook reader Jim Dale, is a song that captures that longing for simpler childhood times. And that longing for a simpler time is perhaps a theme of this record – a desire for things to be less complex. A few songs later, “Underdog” also inhabits that same spirit. Over groovy, palm muted verses, Willis songs, “As I’ve grown up / I’ve learned my heroes are strong / physically strong, not like me.” There’s a lot of hope in the coming-of-age story. But, on Queen of Rockledge, Willis is showing the melancholy in any loss of innocence.
The brooding instrumental of “Space Coast Interlude” leads into the bummer pop of the album’s second single “Intentionally Blank.” With dissonant leads and feedback ringing out before each chorus, this is one of the most chaotic and gorgeous songs on the record. It’s maybe the grittiest song on the record, both musically and lyrically. In the chorus, Willis sings “I’m an empty shell of a person / I’m a hollowed out tree with a note in / I traded happiness for straight compensation / Thought it was fair but nothing seems worth it.” In an era when many of us are working meaningless jobs and see little hope in our future, this might be one of the most accurate representations of the current emotional state of young-ish folks in the 21st century.
In an absolutely brilliant sequencing move, Middle Kid have placed one of the sweeter songs on the record right after one of the most confessional. “If You Love Me” is a very simple, but effective pop songs. With it’s 50s barbershop quartet background vocals and clean guitar strumming, it hearkens back to what many of us would consider to be a simpler time. This song shows the development of Willis’ songwriting craft, and the ability to has to write different kinds of songs while keeping a cohesive feeling and vibe throughout the record. The last song, “Flipped,” once again has that 80s chorused-out pop feel. At the end of this song, there’s a two minute jam that is one of the more spectacular musical moments on the record. With Austin Braswell staying on the ride cymbal, and the rest of the band creating a swirling wall of textured chords, it’s a beautiful end to this short, but brilliant record.
There are a lot of indie rock records being made right now, and a lot of those records are absolutely amazing. It’s wild to be alive in a time where people are seeing the value in wearing your heart on your sleeve. And that’s exactly what Queen of Rockledge does. Zack Willis and the other members of Middle Kid have created an album that feels honest. It’s goofy at times yet heartbreaking at others. Willis seems to have tapped into the fatigue and despair of the 2010s in a way that isn’t overstated or heavy handed. If you want a pop record for your most vulnerable summer nights, look no further than Queen of Rockledge.