The Devil Makes Three – “I’m A Stranger Here”

I knew I was going to by a copy of I’m A Stranger Here at the exact same moment I knew that The Devil Makes Three were releasing a new album, and it was going to be called I’m A Stranger Here.

There are any number of reasons why I’ll buy an album.  In my younger days I’d often buy a record or CD on the strength of one song.  Sometimes I won, like when I got Van Halen’s 1984 when “Jump” came out (which, for the record, is maybe the third best song on that album).  Sometimes this strategy failed me, as was evidenced by my copy of Winger’s 1988 eponymous debut purchased strictly on the disturbing “Seventeen,” a song that didn’t sound nearly as bad when I was still in high school.  Today many of my more shot-in-the-dark purchases are based on liking bands similar to the one I’m considering.  But then there are bands like The Devil Makes Three.  Bands who have earned my loyalty and who will automatically get my hard earned cash when they release something new, and who will probably have to put out two consecutive crappy albums before I’d stop buying their stuff.

Holly and I have see The Devil Makes Three live in at least four different venues in Seattle (The Crocodile, Neumos, Shobox Market, and El Corozon)… and they’re not even from here.  In fact they’re playing Shobox Sodo in February, and I think we’ll be going to that show too.  Plus we’ve seen singer Pete Bernhard play a solo set at The Tractor.  Needless to say, we love us some Devil Makes Three, so don’t expect an unbiased review.  You’ve been warned.

The Devil Makes Three describe themselves as “Bluegrass, Folk, Country” on their Facebook page, and I’ve also seen them labelled as alt-country.  Hell, maybe they’re cow punk.  Who cares?  What they are for sure are three musicians with a stand-up bass and some combination of zero, one, or two guitars and/or banjos, depending on the song.  Sometimes they have a guest fiddle player, and I think on I’m A Stranger Here they enlist the services of a drummer at times (something they don’t do live).  Regardless, what you get is some high energy, down-home-country Americana.  When you see them live the crowd includes men wearing kilts unironically, people drinking tallboys, and lots of tattoos.  It will be fun.

It wouldn’t be fair to call I’m A Stranger Here a departure from the band’s sound on their previous albums, but there is something different going on here.  It feels like the trio got deeper into roots music, making a record that is more closely tied to the original source material than a sort of punked up version of it.

Hallelu Hallelu, praise the lord and pass the ammunition too,
They say Jesus is comin’, he must be walkin’ he sure ain’t runnin’,
Who can blame him, look how we done him, Hallelu!
— “Hallelu”

This music is irreverent.  It’s about hard people and hard times.  Religion and loss and violence bubble up under the surface as the band introduces you to determined and flawed people who live life according to their own code.

I need you and I want you ’cause I know you from before,
I hate you and I fear you but I hold open the door,

I see you and you see me and we know what must be done,
So we draw knives and lock eyes ’cause it does no good to run.
— “Goodbye Old Friend”

I’ve listened to this record five times already and I’m still having a hard time pinning it down.  I know that the best “single” is probably the second song, “Worse or Better,” but also that I like side B way better than side A, with “Hallelu” and “Hand Back Down” getting my attention and feet moving.  It may or may not be the band’s best album (only time will tell…), but it does sound like the most authentic as The Devil Makes Three truly captures the southern, working class sound that is the essence of their material.  It might not have been intended as a tribute to those roots, and it may only represent a simulacrum of what we envision music from that era was actually like, but it still beautifully captures a moment and place in time, and the people who populate it.