Until now, there were two The Devil Makes Threes. There was the relatively subdued Devil Makes Three that appeared on their self-titled debut and follow-up Longjohns, Boots, and a Belt with a fusion of folk, string band, and ragtime that tasted sort of like a magical elixir from the ’20s and ’30s. Then there was the other Devil Makes Three, the one that injected such punk energy into its live shows, kept that bass slapping and those guitars strumming so insistently, that people would actually start moshing to an old-timey acoustic trio… and then bring their friends out to do the same next time the band swung through town. In a nod to this split identity, the band titled its 2006 live album A Little Bit Faster and a Little Bit Worse.
Even that excellent live disc, however, did not capture the raw energy and promise evident on the group’s just-released third “studio” album, Do Wrong Right (which was actually recorded in a house, not a studio). This is a much more dynamic effort than anything else they’ve recorded to date, employing a wider variety of instruments and incorporating more vocal harmony. In fact, with these changes, the band is edging closer to an Old Crow Medicine Show type of sound. The result is far from imitation, though, as the distinctive vocals of Pete Bernhard and the fact that half of the harmony and one-third of the group is female (that’s bassist Lucia Turino) keep them firmly in sonic territory all their own. The incorporation of more bluegrass elements notwithstanding, this is still a rhythm-and-ragtime jug band at its heart.
[By the way, the third member of the group is guitarist/banjoist Cooper McBean. Not to give him short shrift by mentioning him parenthetically or anything; I just couldn’t think of a way to work his name seamlessly into the main text. My apologies. You are excellent, Cooper McBean.]
More than anything else, this record has finally captured the vitality of the trio, an electrifying quality most obviously on display in some of its lighter fare. “Gracefully Facedown” (alcoholism never sounded so good) and “Do Wrong Right” are both quirky, good-humored party songs, but neither can beat “For Good Again” for utter charm. The tale of a ragtag bunch of buddies who decide to start up their own band, it features some of the most hilarious lyrics you’ll find this side of Todd Snider and John Prine:
We drank and we threw up, sometimes we practiced and played
Our drummer couldn’t figure out whether he was straight or he was gay
We went on tour within walking distance of our house
Maybe that’s why no one knew what our sound was all about
As with Prine and Snider, that sense of fun comes with a conscience and life philosophy, which might be best summed up by an off-handed remark made in another part of the song:
Everybody who’s anybody, in my opinion,
At one time lived in somebody’s hallway
Call it compassion for the downtrodden, championing the underdog, the voice of youthful rebellion. It’s written everywhere in the work of The Devil Makes Three.
While they specialize in bass-slapping high-tempo singalongs, the trio handles slower and sadder songs just as well. The plodding “Johnson Family,” the folk lament of “Working Man’s Blues” (on which each member takes a vocal lead), and the album-ending “Car Wreck” are all about hard times. Even many of the faster songs are shot through with various shades of despair; it’s just that they also happen to hop along at an infectious clip.
Sometimes the best things come from unlikely places. That’s the case with this little album, recorded to 2-inch tape by a trio of tradition-minded twentysomethings (thirtysomethings?) based out of Santa Cruz. With more like this, they’ll be around for a very long time. Although they’ve already grown a considerable grassroots following, widespread acclaim has eluded them so far. Jump onboard now and you can say you knew them way back when.