The Devil Makes Three’s “I’m A Stranger Here”
All of this is after a few years ago when it looked like the band could go either way. They never stopped touring or releasing new music, but frontman Pete Bernhard was releasing solo records, studying herbalism, and working at the Bohemian Grove. But something has clicked over the last few years, their live show is better than ever, and they’re riding the upswing in interest in the roots that they helped fuel themselves with their punk-infused interpretation of old time string music.
I’ll be honest with you, when I initially listened to this record, I thought it was going to be a hard sell. It’s a fairly dirty recording for starts, with no real crispness to it or a separation of the parts. Of course this was on purpose to capture the live, vintage feel that The Devil Makes Three tries to attain, but I found myself having to listen through some muddiness to really glean the lyric or the heart of the song the first few times through. It’s also a fairly sparse project, and I was worried there just wasn’t enough here to sell it to a wide audience.
But The Devil Makes Three can’t be denied, and after a few listens, you’re wearing out your repeat button. What The Devil Makes Three does so well is the same thing Pokey LaFarge does: they pick up on all the subtleties and nuances of vintage string music, not just the big, obvious flavors and modes. What then separates The Devil Makes Three from Pokey is that they pay that appreciation forward with a punk attitude. With so many of the string bands around these days—you darn near need to affix a cattle guard to your coach just to shoo them all aside when driving through a college town—the sentiment seems to be that vintage instruments and curly mustaches are all it takes. They don’t pick up on the nuances that made old time music timeless. They’re simply playing new music with old instruments.
The Devil Makes Three are not fast players. They don’t set your head spinning with blazing technique or technical song structures made to impress you with their prowess. They simply know how to meld melody to story like few others, making their songs stick to your bones and embed in your brain until you downright crave this music. Anyone with enough time and disciple can learn how to move their fingers quickly. It’s a whole other skill set to be able to listen to music and deduce how it speaks directly to the human soul.
I’m A Stranger Here doesn’t stray too far from the traditional, 3-piece lineup of the band, with frontman Pete Bernhard, Lucia Torino on standup bass, and Cooper McBean on banjo and guitar. But there are a few horn sections, a little percussion for added flavor, and the fiddle makes a welcome appearance as well. Songs like “Worse Or Better” and “Dead Body Moving” wear down your resistance to move uncontrollably and are bolstered by Lucia Torino’s sweet harmonies. “Hallelu” and “Spinning Like A Top” make you dizzy from the deliberate use of wit in the lyrics and are finished off with an infectious melody. “Stranger” and “Forty Days” evoke the ragtime/early jazz influences that make up the unique sound of The Devil Makes Three.
This one may take a few initial spins, but you very well may find your next favorite record. I’m A Stranger Here is finally affording The Devil Makes Three the national recognition they’ve deserved as being one of the first, and one of the best of the punk-infused string bands.
1 ¾ of 2 guns up. 4 of 5 stars.
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November 1, 2013 @ 11:46 am
Hmmm. I grew up in Sonoma County and used to park cars at Bohmeian Grove. I have seen Devil Makes Three at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Great festival, though things can easily distract from the music. It is certainly worth a trip to head down there for the whole weekend some time. Nice jackalope in the first image, for what it is worth.
November 1, 2013 @ 12:35 pm
“you darn near need to affix a cattle guard to your coach just to shoo them all aside when driving through a college town”
Great line! You perfectly describe my town. You can’t get a beer without bumping into at least two Ketch Secor wannabees. I don’t want to derail from this album review because I love me some Devil Makes Three, however your line about Pokey LaFarge got me thinking. About a month back there were these dudes playing a street festival and they had the assorted requisite tattoos and dreads and beards and I kind of rolled my eyes and thought, “Here we go again.” Then this band starts blowing everyone away and the whole intersection fills up to hear these guys play – a band called Deep Chatam from North Carolina. Even got their picture in our newspaper the next day. Beautiful voice, tasteful playing, unique vintage sound.
November 1, 2013 @ 2:00 pm
http://youtu.be/nY86Gjgo-v8 I likes it! Thanks Big A.
November 1, 2013 @ 1:49 pm
still waitin on the vinyl but I’ve been wearin’ out the mp3 download of this kickass album! Thanks for the heads-up Triggerman.
November 1, 2013 @ 3:04 pm
Really really looking forward to seeing them in NYC in a couple weeks. I’ve enjoyed the albums but never seen them live. Opening for them is Shakey Graves so should be an all around good night.
November 1, 2013 @ 7:50 pm
I’m giving them a spin for the first time tonight. I like what I’m hearing so far. Another great suggestion, Trigger.
November 2, 2013 @ 2:11 pm
I got a pre-release from a local radio station here in TN, about 30 days ago, and hated the mix. Love the band and will definitely see them live any chance I can, but I’ll want to hear the official release in full before buying it. The version I have is very strange. The banjo is almost gone, like molasses was pored over my speakers. Please tell me if the final version is clear and crisp.
November 2, 2013 @ 3:59 pm
As I said in the review Karl, the muddiness of the recording is my biggest concern with this album, and the reason I kept from giving it a top grade. Molasses over the speakers is a good analogy. Unfortunately I’m afraid this is going to keep people from the music, which is a shame because the content itself is excellent. Really surprised this happened with an album that has Buddy Miller and New West involved. And yes, I get that when you’re using vintage gear or recording live, etc. you can get some muddiness, but in this case I think it could have been better.
November 3, 2013 @ 8:47 am
One of my favorite musical talents. My least favorite album by them so far. I’ll give it a couple more listens for Buddy Miller.
November 3, 2013 @ 7:04 pm
Wow, that sucks. Seriously, I put the CD on and thought WTF is this? I assumed the early copy I got had been deliberately muddied to discourage piracy. It was good enough to evaluate the songs, slower, with nore ornamentation, but the sound quality was not good enough to listen to on a regular basis. I’ll have to start hunting down some soundboards to hear the new stuff. Damn. That was one of the releases I was really looking forward to.
November 4, 2013 @ 11:28 am
After trying multiple times I have decided to shelf it and take it off my MP3 Player. Very disappointed with this release.
November 6, 2013 @ 6:43 am
I think Buddy Miller’s reputation as a producer is that of a facilitator. That is, I don’t think there is an identifiable Buddy Miller “sound” like there might be with producers like Lanois and T-Bone. He did produce the last Carolina Chocolate Drops album, and I don’t think it has the same characteristics that 2265you describe on this album. Could it be that this was the sound the group was going for? Haven’t heard the full album yet.
Bigfoot is Real (but I have my doubts about you)
November 5, 2013 @ 7:23 am
I have to chime in about the mix being on the muddy side and offer that it is all part of the charm of what makes this band so appealing at least to me. The mids and bottom are definately up in the mix and the whole album has more of a swampy blues feel to it than other string bands might offer. Having said that, 4 out of 5 stars is a fair rating given your issues with the mix but I think more text could have been dedicated to the brillance of Pete Bernard’s lyrics.
November 6, 2013 @ 5:16 pm
It doesn’t work for me, but if you like it, thumbs up!
Anyone surfing in from the internet should be aware that their other three studio releases don’t have this issue, and I would strongly recommend that anyone new to DM3 get their first, “Devil Makes Three” (self titled) CD, it is flat out gold, brilliant from start to finish with clear raucous production. It is a classic.
Then if you need more, get “Do Wrong Right”, their 3rd CD, and then “Longjohns Boots and a Belt”.
I actually had the same thought about the swamp bluesy thing and it occured to me that they did choose the wrong producer. I think DM3 should have gone to New Orleans and sought out Malcolm Welbourne (aka: “Papa Mali”). He is doing a lot of production work now (and getting wide recognition for his work). He released a CD called Thunder Chicken back in 2007, a funky swamp blues CD which is jaw droppingly good. Check out: Fire Water, Bon Ton Roulet, and Walk on Guilded Splinters, all of which I highly recommend. Obviously, he used completely different instruments, but the depth and clarity and strength of each note is there.
Then, after listening to Papa Mali, go back and listen to “I’m a Stranger” and imagine how good it could have been with clear powerful Papa Mali style production.
Bigfoot is Real (but I have my doubts about you)
November 8, 2013 @ 9:17 am
Thanks for the tip on Papa Mali. Just finished checking out his Thunder Chicken and Do Your Thing releases and yes, his production is absolutely solid. Hard to agrue that he wouldn’t be a good fit for DM3. Do Your Thing does lay on some heavy effects though but they also work for me. Oddly, I did not care for the production on the eponymously titled release. The guitar direct to board was just too “piezo-y” brittle for me. I still love it as a whole though.
BTW, I saw DM3 last night and the set was golden. Almost no down time between songs and Lucia Turino just kills it on bass. Third time for me seeing them over the last few years and this was the most guitar powered set I have seen them play so far.
November 8, 2013 @ 5:59 pm
DM3 did a bunch of dates in August with Yonder Mountain String Band that I really wanted to see but they didn’t come anywhaere near me – I’m in the mountains of east TN. So, really happens near me.