The Middle East blew everyone away - in their own subtle, quiet manner - when they released a collection of songs in 2009 known as The Recordings of the Middle East. Since then, some noteworthy festival inclusions and well placed support slots (Doves, The National) has created a lot of buzz around the band. But despite the hype, the six piece still remain somewhat mysterious. Their one sentence official bio gives nothing away (“We’re from Townsville Australia and we play music”), their live shows are predominantly minimalist, subtle affairs, despite the amount of bodies that normally overtake the stage, and there is no spectacular fanfare. Not that the band need it - their music, with all its quiet nuances, dreaminess, and moody qualities, speaks so well for itself.
After two years of waiting, the band has finally sated their audience and put out their first full length. In I Want That You Are Always Happy, The Middle East once again showcase their talent for creating a wonderfully evocative sound-sparse and sombre song. Album opener "Black Death 1349" is reminiscent of the minimal, hushed "The Darkest Side", with its simplistic melody line and soft vocals, and "My Grandmother Was Pearl Hall" is similarly haunting, with its mournful piano and a slightly jarring, dischordant loop beneath Jordan Ireland's quiet vocals.
This is a more adventurous release for the group. Intersecting the album is the instrumental piano song "Sydney to Newcastle", which gives an almost poignant touch to something as commonplace as a platform train announcement (sampled into the background of the song). The album delves into darker territory with "Mount Morgan", which, with its gravelly vocals, dirge-like mood, ambling rhythm and over-distorted guitars, has a Tom Waits feel to it.
But probably the most engaging Middle East tunes are the ones that take you to unexpected places, an art they mastered most notably in Recordings...’s "Blood". The album’s leading single, "Jesus Came to my Birthday Party", follows in a similar vein - the simple folk pop song, with lead vocals sung by Ireland and keyboardist Bree Tranter, slowly builds its instrumentation until it peaks into a dense, catchy fuzz-pop chorus. The band tread Fleet Foxes-esque territory with the warm, pastoral and harmony-rich "Dan’s Silverleaf", which crescendoes into a much rockier, alt country song by the end of its four minutes.
With so much anticipation riding on this release, The Middle East have certainly not disappointed. I Want That You Are Always Happy is a diverse and interesting journey, and a stellar debut album from one of Australia’s most exciting bands.
Review score: 8/10