Recording information: The Butcher Shop, Nashville, TN.
Releasing a covers album to follow up 2013's commercially and critically successful I'm a Stranger Here might seem like a curious commercial move, but Santa Clara's the Devil Makes Three are no ordinary band. For 15 years, the drummerless trio has issued album after album of stomping roots music that weds country, bluegrass, early blues, and jug band traditions. This set of classic and obscure American tunes is divided thematically (and in reverse order of Redemption & Ruin's title: it journeys from a raucous and sinful Saturday night to Sunday morning and the hereafter). All-star invited guests assist on various interpretations. The "Ruin" side opens with a smoking modern bluegrass read of Robert Johnson's "Drunken Hearted Man." Cooper McBean's popping five-string banjo introduces Pete Bernhard's lead vocal as Lucia Turino's upright bass and backing vocal pace him. Shawn Camp's stinging lead guitar and fiddle and Jerry Douglas' steel guitar get wrapped tightly in the tune's stomp and swagger. They stick with the blues, offering a rocking take on Muddy Waters' "Champagne and Reefer." Mickey Raphael's moaning harmonica rides above McBean's choogling electric six-string, paced by the bassline and Jerry Roe's primitive drum kit with Shad Cobb adding fiddle fills. An excellent ragtime version of Willie Nelson's "I Gotta Get Drunk" features Larry Paxton's tuba as a rhythmic complement to the bassline, with Douglas' Dobro chugging on the changes. The first half closes with countrified psychedelia as the trio enlists Emmylou Harris' harmony vocals on Townes Van Zandt's already otherworldly Americana blues "Waiting Around to Die." Fine as those six songs are, the second half, drenched in gospel, is even more successful, commencing with Phil Moore's popping "There'll Be a Jubilee" with McBean delivering a Carl Perkins-inspired rockabilly guitar pattern. Ralph Stanley's "I Am the Man Thomas," sung from the perspective of Jesus to his doubting disciple, is a 21st century bluegrass ramble with Jerry Roe providing percussion on spoons. Tom Waits' "Come on Up to the House" is completely (and beautifully) reimagined as country gospel with upright honky tonk piano, three-part vocal harmony, and a tenor banjo appending the acoustic guitar, bass, and Chance McCoy's fiddle. The traditional nugget "Down in the Valley" is a sprightly, high lonesome read done with absolute conviction and a finger-popping tempo thanks to Tim O'Brien's fiddle and Darrell Scott's Dobro that add to the urgency in the band's attack. Hank Williams' "The Angel of Death" closes the set on a reflective note, but the soul in Bernhard's vocal -- accompanied by his bandmates' haunted harmonies -- in this waltz-time country blues is chilling. Dan Dugmore's pedal steel and Douglas' acoustic one are appended by Duane Eddy's skeletal reverb-o-phonic electric leads, a viola, and fiddle. Redemption & Ruin is a fine covers album: it not only illuminates and adds new dimensions to these songs, but it unmistakably reflects the Devil Makes Three's musical persona, making it a welcome addition to their catalog. ~ Thom Jurek