Before the fall of 2011, the Devil Makes Three had released three studio albums and a live record, slowly but surely growing their grassroots fanbase from California’s Bay Area outward. None of their records had really successfully captured what the band was all about, though. The Devil Makes Three was one of those bands you “had to see live” to really understand. Longtime music fans know, though, that unless you’re talking about an accomplished jam band (the Grateful Dead, Phish), or an artist that puts on a spectacle in concert (KISS), “our albums don’t do us justice” is usually an excuse. It’s an excuse for not knowing how to use the recording studio or for not finding a producer who knows what he’s doing.
This was almost certainly the case with the Devil Makes Three, because once their excellent live album Stomp and Smash dropped in October of 2011, their career took off. That album finally did capture the band’s infectious live energy and assembled many of their best songs in one place. It led to prominent slots in all sorts of major festivals and several successful North American tours. It also led them to a higher-profile record label with the resources to ensure that the band didn’t fall on its face when it came time to record a new album. New West Records hooked the band up with roots music veteran Buddy Miller as producer and, as a result, I’m a Stranger Here is far and away The Devil Makes Three’s best studio effort.
From the dark, rolling early jazz and blues of opener “Stranger” to the quiet, regretful country waltz of closer “Goodbye Old Friends”, I’m a Stranger Here crackles with verve and enthusiasm. Singer/guitarist Pete Bernhard’s wry lyrics and catchy melodies keep the songs upbeat even when the subject matter is dark. “Forty Days” imagines what a flood of biblical proportions would do to modern cities. Musically, though, its ‘20s-style jazz, complete with a horn assist from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, is very catchy. Plus the song’s call and response refrain (“Forty Days! / (Forty Nights)”) is an irresistible sing along. “Hallelu” finds Bernhard poking holes in Christian hypocrisy, “Trying to kill the silence with gun blasts and alcohol… Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, too”, before concluding “They say Jesus is coming / He must be walking / He sure ain’t running / Who could blame him / Look how we done him / Hallelu.” And this is all set to a joyous country-gospel rave-up.
While the main trio of Bernhard, bassist Lucia Turino, and banjo/guitar player Cooper McBean are the focus of all the songs on the album, Miller isn’t afraid to augment their sound with touches both subtle and overt. A few tracks, like “Hallelu”, “Goodbye Old Friends”, and the bouncy ode to bad decisions “Mr. Midnight”, feature the trio nearly unadorned. The rootsy stomper “Worse or Better” uses an excellent fiddle accompaniment to counterpoint to McBean’s buzzy hollow-body electric guitar riffs and throws in kick drum and tambourine to enhance Turino and Bernhard’s rhythm instruments. The slinky “Hand Back Down” has another great electric riff from McBean, and Miller once again goes with the kick drum and tambourine accompaniment to great effect. But he also employs brushed snare drum as well.
I’m a Stranger Here is a strong album from top to bottom, but the most representative song might be “Spinning Like a Top”, which sets a nostalgic look at the bad ol’ days to jaunty, fiddle-driven music. Bernhard’s lyrics celebrate close calls in his life with references to “dealing in the broad daylight” and being “18 years old, head full of psilocybin” before toasting “Here’s to not / Getting caught.” It’s a song that merges the band’s old-timey musical tendencies with a modern point of view and does it seamlessly.
The success of Stomp and Smash likely gave the Devil Makes Three one great shot at making an actual living off of their music and not just scraping by for food and gas money. I’m a Stranger Here is a top-notch album that sounds like the band is finally reaching their potential and seizing this opportunity. If New West is savvy, they’ll market this record directly to all the disappointed Avett Brothers fans out there. The ones who are bummed that the band’s Rick Rubin era is driving the Brothers further into “all sensitive love ballads all the time”. The Devil Makes Three is not a carbon copy of that band by any means, but they bring a similarly loose, punky feel to their brand of Americana music. They seem to have figured out how to capture that feeling on record at precisely the same time the Avetts have decided that capturing that feeling on record is no longer necessary.