I once thought that college rock was dead, or at least well on its way to dying, preferably in a pit somewhere among winos and tranny whores who’ve nary a care to notice. I’ve been stupid before and I remain so now upon hearing The Devil Makes Three-college rock is ever more alive it seems, or, now that I think of it, at least it makes for a lively ghost. I hear it every now and then, often confusing it for public radio what with its DJs having mastered the tone of sleazy librarian in a padded cell. They play records that, while generally diverse, have a distinct commonality in sound if not theme.
The Devil Makes Three is a representative case of everything a listener of major college radio stations-and for that matter public radio stations-could ever want. However sincere their desire to play articulated ragtime, blues, country and so forth, it is perfectly in keeping with the idiosyncratic, overly quirky American nationalism that plagues non-Clear Channel radio and the wealthier sections of Brooklyn. There are no banjos in those parts of Brooklyn unless they’re emanating from whatever it is people use these days to listen to music that has been played several times over in decades past but without sufficient irony reflecting the shame and decay of the times, which the band tries to render with their wordy lyrics that swerve from naturalist narrative to surreal poetry and back. This is not to say that they lack sufficient talent, or are otherwise hucksters of the show-over-substance persuasion.
Peter Bernard sings in a heavy provincial accent that recalls the post-Reconstruction/prewar south where the salt of the earth slave in fields for meager pay that they drink on shotgun shack porches, and not some guy from Santa Cruz. TDMT blend the best of the rural genres and have mastered their simple rhythm structures with a well-honed technical prowess that could be just as effective while playing hardcore. Taken with the bevy of jaunty acoustic guitars are banjos, harmonicas and a strident stand-up bass. Depressing as these songs may often be, the atmosphere is raucous like a funeral brawl or spontaneous sex on a billiards table just before last call. The term dropping of punk, which they take much pride in, actually does a disservice to the music perpetuating the misconception that ragtime and blues are soft, Disney genres. It’s true that Disney, pop music and white middle class rage have rendered all pre-rock sounds into mushiness, but TDMT actually make an ample reproduction of rural music in its ascendancy. For instance, Robert Johnson sang rather openly about domestic violence, Peetie Wheatstraw did the same for suicide.
The band echo the ways of old by spinning tales of woe, the poetry of lowlifes and working stiffs; urban decay and the Johnson Family (a gang term originating from crime memoir You Can’t Win and popularized by William Burroughs). The first song alone pours out the rhyming imagery with references to a negligent crackhead mother with a baby whose name, for some reason, is Adolf Hitler, Albert Einstein and Jesse James. The stylings and structures are impressive, and the melodies not short on serenity and pulse, the reservations are clear.
Though I admit to not being the most agile anthropologist, I’ve learned quite enough to know that upscale irony-that which is wielded by students of civil law and the like-will kill the soul of this band. Young, intellectual Americans with a distaste for the country stylings of Real America, vicious minds, and no shortage on preciousness will likely look at this band not as a punk-influenced proto-rock band, but as one of two possible alternatives: a sonic satire aiming at our current apocalypse or as easy, safe voyeurism for them to see the other half in all their methamphetamine-fevered evangelical savagery. The death of this flimsy generation along with that of irony will provide the proper answer as to whether or not their purely artistic efforts were not in vain.
Old Crow Medicine Show – O.C.M.S.
The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism
The Felice Brothers – The Felice Brothers