Folk and gospel, with a kick
With a trademark mix of style, sass and sin, The Devil Makes Three don’t shy away from the dark side, as their name might imply. However, with a sound firmly rooted in bluegrass traditions like stand-up bass, harmonies, and plenty of banjo, there’s something wholesome and endearing shining through whatever downtrodden tales they’re spinning forth.
The Devil Makes Three on their forthcoming fifth LP “Redemption and Ruin” take their blues- and rockabilly-tinged Americana even further back in time by adopting a dozen songs to cover about the soul-saving and soul-crushing. It’s a concept album, but a simple one – with the first half contemplating the pros and cons of hard living, while the second rejoices in better times and ponders the mortal soul.
Culling from the likes of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, and the traditional folk songbook, they’ve created a collection that’s a polished listen, but not at the expense of heavy topics. While still a trio, this album musically has plenty of well-placed additions and solos, plus top-of-the-line guests like Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott and Duane Eddy.
Track one “Drunken Hearted Man” shows off what this band does best – getting the party started with fast picking, fiddle solos and banjo aplenty. Track two “Champagne and Reefer,” which is also one of the first two Spotify singles, is a swingy, sexy groove that doubles as an honest love song to marijuana, praising the medicinal effects of the drug pledging “I’m gonna stick to my refer/Ain’t mess around no cocaine.”
The Devil Makes Three have always embraced the narrative of a good party, or getting to messed up to move, with songs that indulge in the “Old Number7” and “Gracefully Facedown.” The references to bodies and drugs and inebriation are part and parcel to this band’s edge, and maybe the first hook for new listeners who wouldn’t otherwise want to listen to a bluegrass trio. Musically, they’re all polish and complement — Pete Benrhard, the lead singer and guitar player, lets his drawl rip and is balanced out in harmonies by Lucia Turino, who sings backup and plays upright bass. Cooper McBean alternates between the banjo and electric guitar, keeping the sound stylized, fast-paced and moving.
But two-pronged focus of “Redemption and Ruin” somehow brings out a deeper, self-awareness behind the intoxicated lifestyle and its motivations – take, for example, “Chase the Feeling,” from Kris Kristofferson which is a downright depressing blues burn that shames the listener/addict in question, while also showcasing the power of the group’s three-part harmonies.
“I’m Gonna Get High” from Hudson Whittaker is another ode to the joys of getting stoned, if you’re missing out a little if you live the sober life. But things turn grim on Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around To Die” – they also turn deep, with bass vocal harmonies to supplant Pete Bernhard’s intentionally shaky, shadowy lead. Backup vocals from the great Emmylou Harris, harmonica from Mickey Raphael and death-march drums fill out a track that’s one of the album’s most haunting.
The album’s second half brings the redemption side, kicking off with “There’ll Be a Jubilee” written by Phil Moore. Coming up there’s “Come on Up to the House,” is a feel-good tune, full of soul and gospel, that reminds you how good it feels to walk into the doors of a place you call home, no matter how long you’ve been away or what brought you there. “Angel of Death” is a slinky, spooky closer, and ending with a Hank Williams dirge decorated in steel guitar, pedal steel and strings ends the album on a mortal note.
The Devil Makes Three’s chosen themes might be considered campy, but audiences respond to the way they tackle these edgy themes wrapped up in faithful, expert playing. Their last LP “I’m A Stranger Here” hit #9 on the U.S. folk charts, and #124 overall, and was their first put out on New West Records, the label that’s home to the likes of current hit folk acts like Shovels & Rope, Sara Watkins and Ben Lee, plus more seasons acts like Steve Earle, Luther Dickinson and Buddy Miller. With a bit more of a machine behind them, and more than a decade’s worth of work behind them, The Devil Makes Three latest work might soundtrack the most raucous nights yet.