The Devil Makes Three – All Hail
I like my bluegrass like I like my whiskey – strong and a little rough around the edges. Now, don't get me wrong here. Tight, well practiced, by-the-books bluegrass (Del McCoury comes to mind) can certainly be enjoyable but I'd prefer it whiskey-soaked, loose, and heartfelt any day. California (by way of New England) band The Devil Makes Three certainly fit this description. Although, I am a bit hesitant to call them purely a bluegrass band since they incorporate country, jug band, ragtime, and other similar styles and imbue it all with social meaning and parlor vibes. They're the type of band that you know doesn't take 6 takes and multiple overdubs to record a song. They're just honest and clearly enjoying their music.
2009's release Do Wrong Right starts out with a punch to the face in the form of "All Hail". This jubilant rant against consumerism is definitely my favorite on the album. TDM3 gets right down to jug band music-makin' complete with bouncing bass line and echoing back up singers. If this is your first experience with Pete Bernhard's engaging tenor you're in for a treat. Bernhard's voice is a perfect complement to the band's quirky take on traditional music forms.
Do Wrong Right includes a great cover of the Blind Willie McTell tune, "Statesboro Blues". This is an oft covered song by the likes of Old Crow Medicine Show, Taj Mahal, and my personal favorite from the Holy Modal Rounders. TDM3 do it justice with a great a cappella lead in and a catchy, driving banjo part that only becomes noticeably present between verses. "Poison Trees" is another stand-out track. I love the alternating rhythm speed of the chord progression and the way Bernhard sings the chorus over top with little regard to the rhythm beneath.
There's a tricky little homage in the form of "Working Man's Blues". Sure, it shares it's title and theme with the Merle Haggard tune. But it's the subtly clever wordplay connections that really impress. I won't ruin it all for you, but the most evident example is where Haggard's "I'll be working as long as my two hands are fit to use" turns into "I wanna pull my wagon with my own two hands". These guys clearly know their genre history and aren't above venerating the greats.
Making my way through the album I began to think: "Self, this album wouldn't be complete without a song about poker." Damn straight, and it comes in the form of "Aces and Twos". TDM3 really ramp up the parlor visuals in this one referencing pin stripe suits and a "Cadillac a million miles long". I'm a sucker for songs that really transport you into a world with great imagery and music, and I feel like a badass, Chicago gangster during this one.
"Gracefully Facedown" is as good a song as any to point out something obvious. The Devil Makes Three has a thing for booze. They love singing about booze, they love singing about people that love booze, and I'm going to go ahead and assume they love booze. It just so happens that I love booze as well, so they're alright in my book. Case in point from the song "Cheap Reward" (and also my favorite wordplay from the album):
"Feel so loose tonight I might fall to pieces
Be prepared to sweep me out the door
Now I might be horizontal by the time the music ceases
Yes I get acquainted with the floor Well I been trying to get away from things I always do
Hello floorboard once again and how are you?"
The TDM3 world is one of constant life disappointments and contradictions, where there's always salvation in a bottle or jug. It wasn't until I got to "Johnson Family", a depressing little tune about a frequently jailed thief, who has a short bout of success only to succumb to debt and suicidal thoughts, that I had the epiphany. For all the upbeat bluegrass enthusiasm of TDM3's music, I realized that there is an underlying cynicism to Do Wrong Right. And you know what? I dig it.