Despite a few twee-feeling song titles like “Dan’s Silverleaf” and “Jesus Came to My Birthday Party,” the debut album from the Australian seven-piece known as The Middle East is pretty far from being the feel-good hit of the summer. This is, after all, an album that starts out with “Black Death 1349.”
The majority of the songs here keep a sort of dark and introspective quietude, with occasional bursts of melodrama. Numbers like the simple, piano-based lament of “My Grandma Was Pearl Hall” and the equally sparse “Ninth Avenue Reverie” are driven by the emotive power of vocalist Rohin Jones, who manages to make even the most bare-bones arrangements bloom with dramatic and heartfelt intensity. His voice is not entirely dissimilar to that of The Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Miller, a likeness that’s amplified by the fact that some of the folksier numbers here wouldn’t have sounded out of place on_Oh My God, Charlie Darwin_. There are quite a few of those folksy numbers: the gently unfolding beauty of the eight-minute-long “Deep Water” and the gently rolling twang of “Hunger Song,” for instance. That’s not to say that The Middle East are Low Anthem doppelgangers; it’s just that the two bands’ approaches to deceptively sparse music seem to spring from a shared well.
There’s a bit more rock ’n’ roll and personality to what The Middle East is doing, and, despite the fact that these guys are a seven-piece ensemble, you get the sense that without Jones, the entire affair would completely fall apart; it’s his vocals and distinctive songwriting style that gives the band its identity. In fact, the sound of I Want That You Are Always Happy is so basic and humane, it’s often hard to believe that the band is more than Jones and a collaborator or two.