The Malpass Brothers – Self-Titled
If entertaining renditions of country standards mixed with a couple of inoffensive originals or offerings from lesser known songwriters is your thing, The Malpass Brothers are for you. The self-titled debut from these North Carolina natives is an eleven-song collection dominated by covers, but when the duo steps away from paying tribute to their musical heroes, they prove to be adept songwriters in their own right. Each song benefits from first class production that understands what makes a good country album and the music finds all of the sweet spots for any longtime listener.
The duo begins with a letter-perfect cover of Bill Anderson’s breakup tearjerker “A Death in the Family” and the vocals clearly understand how this material demands tasteful understatement instead of the brash dramatics of an equivalent pop song. They transform Roy Clark’s “Who Is To Blame” from a soapy slice of orchestrated pop country into a gently rollicking reflection on infidelity. The original “Learn to Love Me Too” aches with emotion and, to their credit as songwriters, doesn’t sound at all out of place next to much more famous material. Melodic piano playing enhances its delicacy. “Here I’ll Stay in Alberta” from songwriter Pete Goble is a romantic narrative full of surprising poetry that the Marty Robbins-esque vocal emphasizes.
The spoken word vocal dates “I Met a Friend of Yours Today”, first popularized by Mel Street and later covered by megastar George Strait. Some of the affectations of traditional country, like the aforementioned approach, simply no longer translate well after rap music and its progeny have transformed popular music. The Malpass Brothers, to their credit, never shy away from it and try it. After an earlier attempt at a Robbins imitation, the duo takes on the Marty Robbins classic “Begging to You” and delivers a studied take empty of Robbins’ considerable charisma and, perhaps, underestimated grit.
No one can claim they are easily imitated. The duo opts to try on not one, but two, Hank Williams Sr. songs but spare themselves some agony by choosing relatively unknown numbers from his catalog. The first, “Baby, We’re Really in Love”, is one of those celebratory gems that Hank isn’t typically remembered for. The Malpass Brothers turn it into a romping good time. The second song, “I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Livin”, is one of those songs that gained added significance after Hank’s death it never enjoyed while he was alive. These grimly humorous ditties on love lose a little more of their humor in the hands of this duo, but Chris Malpass turns in another fine vocal.
The Malpass Brothers are entertaining, talented, and convey a genuine enthusiasm for their music. Playing traditional country music in 2015 requires unquestionable love. Their debut is a strong tribute to their faith in the form and their steadfast belief that it still has something to say that modern audiences might still long to hear. Not everything here works, but enough does that it signals a bright future for these young musicians and songwriters.