Pete Bernhard is best known as a member of the folk-punk trio Devil Makes Three, where he is the lead vocalist and also plays both guitar and banjo. They happen to be one of my favorite bands, and one we’ve seen live probably five or six times over the years. Their shows are high intensity, both on the stage and in the crowd, and their songs are populated by outcasts and misfits whose stories the band tells in very non-judgemental and matter-of-fact ways. They’re a slice of modern Americana.
Bernhard put out a solo album in 2009 called Straight Line, which I believe is only available on CD/digital (no vinyl). Interestingly, this same album was more or less released independently earlier the same year under the title 8th Ave and Main (also on CD format). I picked up a copy of the first version, with it’s simple fold-over cardboard sleeve, at a Devil Makes Three show in Seattle that year, and when I compared the track list to Straight Line I saw that the two were identical, with the notable exception of the title track “Straight Line,” which didn’t make the self-released version.
On Straight Line Bernhard sticks with the themes he’s known for in Devil Makes Three – people trying to make it through life, the lovers and the losers, those living their lives the best they can. Musically I find the songs on the album more internally consistent that what I’m used to on the Devil Makes Three records, most of the tracks settling into a steady pace that showcases Bernhard’s voice and lyrics. I won’t lie – there are times that I miss the harmonizing that I’m used to hearing from his bandmates Cooper McBean and Lucia Turino, but these are songs of a slightly different type. A bit slower, a bit sadder perhaps. And the single voice creates a level of heightened intimacy that allows Bernhard to connect both with his stories and the listener.
Called up a friend the other day,
Just to see what kind of words he’d say,
He said “I just met a man down here whose girlfriend don’t like you.”
Said, “Well gimme a number and her address,
And I’ll sincerely do my best
To avoid her the next time I’m passin’ through.”
So as near as I can tell, the same versions of all nine songs on 8th Ave and Main appear on Straight Line, with the addition of the tenth track, “Straight Line.” What’s interesting is that particular song, which is also one of the two best on the album (along with “Sugar Cane”), is actually a re-done version of the song “straightline” that appeared on Bernhard’s 2006 solo release Things I Left Behind. I discovered this by accident – the two versions share the same lyrics and underlying rhythm, though the original version remains slow and minimal throughout while the 2009 version has a quicker pace, especially in the chorus which has a more desperate feel to it. I’m glad “Straight Line” got re-worked because I prefer the faster tempo version, but it’s still an interesting choice to take an older track, give it an overhaul, and make it the title track on a new album.
Lookin’ back now I always preferred, child,
My enemies to my friends,
It always just seemed logical to have something constant,
On which you could depend.
— “Straight Line”
“Sugar Cane” is the strongest song on Straight Line, with it’s minimal guitar playing and the sticky molasses sweetness of Bernhard’s voice. It’s a love song, one of love lost but not forgotten, one that carries the feeling of continued longing and hope that one day it will be rekindled. It’s the perfect song for Bernhard.
Do you ever get lonesome,
I’ll be back
This way again.
We were burnin’ hotter than the fallen angels that night,
And it was all over by the mornin’ light,
It was bitter like the blues
But it was sweeter than the sugar cane.
— “Sugar Cane”
Bernhard is a tremendous talented lyricist and vocalist. Straight Line is available on iTunes, and I highly recommend it for anyone into singer-songwriter stuff, country, or folk, so go give the clips a listen and see what you think.