In the early part of their career, the Devil Makes Three were one of those bands that had real difficulty capturing their live energy on recordings. It makes sense, then, that the band’s intense, fun 2011 live album Stomp and Smash was the one that really expanded their audience and helped them make a name for themselves. Their two subsequent studio records, 2013’s I’m a Stranger Here and 2016’s covers album Redemption and Ruin, were much improved in terms of energy and production.
But their new one, Chains Are Broken, has a different kind of feel to it that sets it apart from their other albums. It took me a little bit to pinpoint it. Pete Bernhard’s singing and songwriting are as sharp as ever, with the off-kilter juxtaposition of early 20th-century music and 21st-century point of view. But something gives the songs a little extra pop, making it feel less old-timey than usual. Then I figured it out: the band is using a full-time drummer on this record. Stephen Amidon is their touring drummer, and he plays with the band throughout Chains Are Broken. He isn’t an official member yet, but his impact is felt.
No longer do bassist Lucia Turino and Bernhard have to trade down and upbeats to keep the rhythm steady, leaving lead guitarist Cooper McBean to handle all the riffs and every single melody solely in the vocals. That’s not to say they don’t still write songs like that. The opener and title track, “Chains Are Broken” is very much in that mold. A mid-tempo song driven by a bendy, slightly sinister guitar riff, finds Bernhard singing about how he’s left a downward spiraling life of drinking and drugs behind in the verses with the chorus: “Now it’s chains are broken / I’ve been set free / I was blind / Now I see / That when you’re treated like a dog that how you start to behave.” Meanwhile, Turino and Bernhard’s guitar do indeed handle the rhythm, with Amidon gently accompanying them and adding flourishes here and there. The song also features wordless harmonizing from Bernhard and Turino in the post-chorus, something that producer Ted Hutt will lean hard on throughout the record.
The slinky first single “Paint My Face” is a great example of the difference Amidon’s drumming and the new emphasis on vocal performance makes in the band’s sound. The slinky, long guitar riff from McBean is harmonized both on Bernhard’s guitar and Turino’s bass, and McBean gets in on the vocals, too, giving the song an eerie three-part harmony. Amidon holds down the rhythm on the drums, which lets Turino and Bernhard wander away from the beat just a bit to give their parts more character. Bernhard’s lyrics about preparing for war and not fearing death are evocative, as is the vocal harmony, of classic depictions of Native Americans in warpaint. The late song vocal break, where the trio harmonizes a cappella, is a great, unusual kind of feel for the band.
As good as the Devil Makes Three is at slightly unsettling slower songs, it’s the upbeat rabble-rousers that they really excel at. Hutt, having produced a long line of bands that straddle the lines between punk, country, and roots music (Old Crow Medicine Show, the Gaslight Anthem, Lucero), really brings out the best in the band on these tracks. “Can’t Stop” is an early ’60s-style rock shuffle with lyrics about suicidal thoughts and taking exhilarating, completely unnecessary risks. “Bad Idea” bounces along on a bed of honky-tonk piano and finds Bernhard returning to one of his bedrock themes of being young and making bad decisions. The chorus even reflects that; “Bad idea / You know I had to do it / Another, bad idea / All over again.” This song features a fiery electric guitar solo from McBean and even has a bit of fuzz in the tone.
But the best of these is “Deep Down”, a jaunty song that opens with the chorus, “Deep in my heart / Deep in my heart / Deep in my heart / I’m a terrible man / Deep down in my heart / I know what I am.” It’s a great sing-along chorus, and the song is enhanced by Bernhard’s verses, where he ticks off a list of things that make him an upstanding citizen. The punchline here is that there is no punchline, which is tragic. There is no bad behavior described in the verses; there’s no turn into murder or robbery. By his account this man is a great guy in every way; he just believes that he’s a terrible person deep down in his heart.
Bernhard’s tales of men who are down on their luck continue on two of the record’s most interesting songs. “Need to Lose” is a country rave-up about gambling. Bernhard sings in the verses about card playing intermixed with lyrics about hard traveling. But the heart of the song comes in the catchy three-part harmony of the chorus, “I don’t gamble ’cause I want to win, boys / I gamble ’cause I need to lose.” “Native Son” also features three-part harmony in the chorus, but the three voices are much more tightly clustered here, giving the refrain a goosebump-inducing catchiness. It’s also one of the more musically adventurous tracks on the record, featuring two distinct guitar parts and a handclap and foot-stomp-oriented percussion part (Amidon sticks mostly to occasional kick drum and tambourine here). The chorus finds Bernhard insisting “I ain’t no stranger here / I’m a native son,” to unnamed people.
If there’s one place the Devil Makes Three falter on Chains Are Broken, it’s on the bright, easygoing “Castles We Are the Ocean”. Sunny, beachside country-pop strips the band of their bite. The guitar riffs are decent, and so are the vocal harmonies, and it’s not a bad song, it just doesn’t fit particularly well with, well, the entire previous output of the band. The only other complaint I have is that Bernhard handles all of the lead vocals this time around. Generally, McBean and his old-school bluegrass singing get a showcase or two on the band’s album, and that doesn’t happen here. But at least he’s clearly audible whenever the band dips into three-part harmony, which, as I’ve described, is quite often here.
A drummer doesn’t fundamentally change the sound of the Devil Makes Three, which has always run a pretty wide gamut of rootsy styles. It just changes their approach a bit, and that’s not necessarily for better or worse. Chains Are Broken ends up being another excellent addition to the band’s already-strong recent run of albums.