If you have not had the pleasure of making their rowdy acquaintance at one of the countless gigs they’ve played in tiny bars or at mega-festivals over the course of the past 15 or thereabouts years, the Devil Makes Three are a trio of neo-ragtime, -folk, -country musicians with a punk attitude and the chops to win over a crowd of purists or scenesters alike. Pete Bernhard, Cooper McBean and Lucia Turino are all born Vermonters, but have called San Francisco their home base since the band’s inception.
Since their self-released, eponymous debut in 2002 they have released six records (four studio and two live) that have demonstrated equal parts reverence for tradition and restlessness in search of new ways to interpret the old styles. Their 2013 release, I’m a Stranger Here was produced by Americana superstar Buddy Miller and garnered near-universal acclaim, even creeping into the Billboard top-200 album chart. On Redemption & Ruin, their fifth release and second for New West, they engage upon what might be their most challenging adventure yet: recording an album of covers that, as intimated by the title, is divided equally between songs of sacred striving and secular abandon.
The interpretations and song arrangements heard here reflect the sessions’ adventurous spirit. Bernhard, McBean, and Turino make great use of guest musicians like Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglass, Duane Eddy, and Tim O’Brien by keeping everything spontaneous and organic while leading their guests through some creative interpretations of the source material. They transform the slow drag of Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer” into a rollicking, rockabilly-like stomp. So, too, they open the album with an up-tempo version of Robert Johnson’s “Drunken Hearted Man”.
On the other end of the spectrum, they amplify the self-loathing and malice of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Round to Die” by slowing it down to a dirge. Their take on Hank Williams’ “Angel of Death” is even more mournful than the original (Williams’ recording sounds like he’s in a hurry to meet his maker). Meanwhile, their version of Bill Monroe’s “What Would You Give”, possibly the album’s most uplifting track, sticks pretty close to its composer’s vision.
Whether taking liberties or upholding a standard, the band makes intelligent choices throughout this record, which passes by in a swift 37 minutes. That could seem almost too short, but then, to extend these songs into jams or to cram another dozen similar tracks onto the disc, though they’d comfortably fit, would likely turn this sprightly collection into a plodding exercise. This is a smartly curated set, as lively in its passing as its playing.
Equally smart was the decision to record these songs live in producer Dave Ferguson’s Butcher Shoppe studio rather than play the multi-take, multi-tracked game. These songs have lasted because there is a spirit of life in them. The old timers here like Robert Johnson and Tampa Red didn’t fret the details in the studio — the mixing board and its attendant fussiness hadn’t been invented yet — they simply arrived primed to play. Even the more contemporary songwriters represented here like Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, and Tom Waits have often been at their best when recording at their simplest. The Devil Makes Three have been at this long enough to understand that. Their true reverence for these songs comes through even in their most radical conversion.
And speaking of conversion, gospel always sounds better when it is sung by a band of sinners. Bernhard, McBean, and Turino bring a hellacious drive to the side A songs of Bacchanalian abandon, and they are equally moving in their performances of the sacred material. They are true believers in the music. Redemption & Ruin is a damn fine Saturday night blurs into Sunday morning record.