There is a warmth and good humour on the records of The Middle Ones which it is difficult to overstate. Invariably dealing with the simple pleasures and strong bonds of love and friendship, one comes away from their songs with a sense that, somewhere in the world, there are two people whose caring, generous natures, and enormous talent for expressing them, almost justify the miserable general shitshow that churns ever on regardless. It has been four and a half years since they last released a record, six since their last LP “Slow and Steady” and if ever there was a time when a new album from them was desperately needed to dispel just a little of the current gloom, surely it is now.
Their third studio LP, “There You Made Me Funny”, released next week on their own Both Both label, takes a slightly different approach from earlier albums. The accordions, clarinets and general church hall ambience are gone, with arrangements mostly stripped back to just an electric guitar, occasional drums and of course Anna and Grace’s peerless harmonies. At its fullest iteration, which makes up about half the album, this resembles a basic version of the scratchy DiY pop played by indie peers such as Frozy (whose Nicol Parkinson takes the controls here), rather than the more expansive elements heard on some earlier songs. However, this is still recognisably pure Middle Ones and there’s little here that is cause for genuine surprise; indeed the sound is reminiscent of previously released live recordings. Opener ‘Lucky’ sets the scene pretty clearly, with scrappy strummed guitar and drums backing the pair’s charming tribute to a friend. Elsewhere, songs like “OMC” take a different route, as the (as ever) spellbinding vocal interplay, and stuttering rhythms of the guitar and percussion, add up to something more akin to a traditional folk song.
Listening to some of the quieter numbers, the obvious parallel as ever is with The Softies, most clearly on enjoyable slow janglers like “All The Way Home” and “Cromer”. However, the comparison only goes so far; lyrically, whilst The Softies were frequently disappointed one way or the other, The Middle Ones can find something good even in the worst of situations. On “Waking Up”, Anna for once sounds utterly desperate as she recalls the fear of moving to a new place, but before long her confusion is gone, replaced again by joy in the company of others. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether the lyrics on “Funny” concern friendship or romance, but perhaps the point is that it doesn’t really matter, that the important thing is the strength of the bond, the happiness gained and given from the connection.
Closer “The Place’ feels a little more certain in this regard, a tale of trying to make love work long distance. While the song obviously has a bittersweet edge to it, accentuated by the melancholy, grinding guitar, the focus is on the small things that blunt the separations, the letters, gifts and visits which somehow seem to make it all worthwhile. The LP is peppered with these incidental details and shared experiences, which so often pass us by but are frequently the way by which we form bonds with the people in our lives; watching Columbo the morning after sleeping on someone’s couch for example, or having a fit of giggles in the supermarket. This builds a kind of tapestry throughout the album, a network of joys and kindnesses which ensnare the listener; by the end, you just wish that anybody could ever think of you with the fondness that Anna and Grace clearly feel for those around them.
This would be worth little if they were unable to translate those sentiments into their music but, as anyone who knows anything about The Middle Ones will tell you, their ability to do that is basically a given. ‘Cromer’ may be the best of all, a wistful waltz about swimming with a friend, where the close harmonies and atmospheric wash of percussion seem to convey a sense of the calm but powerful intimacy of the situation. A lyric here captures the band’s philosophy almost entire: “I love this film and you’ve never seen it / You love this book so I promise I’ll read it / I love this place, I’m so glad that you’re here with me”. The Middle Ones understand that these everyday actions and tokens of affection with which we reveal our feelings are not small things, but the stuff of which all our relationships are built. God fucking bless them.
“There You Made Me Funny” can be ordered from here: