Every band has a why-the-pandemic-sucked story. For the Mallett Brothers Band, it’s all about the tour that was supposed to start in March 2020 and didn’t.
Some bands have a make-the-best-of-the-pandemic story. For the Malletts, it’s all about having had the support of a new booking agency to reschedule that run of gigs to this fall and using the newfound time to put together the best album of their decade-long career.
With the brand-new “Gold Light,” a record that kicked off Fourth of July weekend with two sold-out shows in rural Milo, that’s just what they’ve done.
Their eighth full-length release, it is expansive and thoughtful, muscular and self-assured, something that sounds like songwriters and performers who put themselves through the wringer and came out better for it on the other side. It especially accomplishes the rare feat of sounding like every note has been expertly placed while still retaining raw, organic energy that is fresh and immediate.
“Colfax” might not be the first single (that’s “Livin’ on Rock and Roll,” a new Maine classic), but it seems to encapsulate much of what makes this record special. The alternating five-note electric guitar riffs that open the song and cycle back through periodically are a declaration, a searing bravado. There is mention of “bluegrass at the bar,” but this is fundamentally a rock band, and they wear that mantle with gravity.
“If you survive this cold October Denver night,” Luke Mallett sings, in a voice that seems to gather more body with every passing year, “I might steal five hundred cars, earn a couple battle scars/ But I’ll get through this cold confusion of a Colorado night.” It’s hard not to translate that defiance into the last year of grinding and waiting.
The ghost of a banjo in the background of the second half is a nod to countrified roots, but it’s caught up in a cycling swirl of guitars and pounding cymbals. The hairline of feedback at the finish is like a dare.
Far from pop rock, this is gritty, rooted, weighty fare, the sort of thing Springsteen was doing on “Nebraska” and John Cougar was doing on “American Fool.” The stories here are proxies for a countrified population that increasingly seems too rough around the edges for modern society, in danger ever more of being left behind by progress, even if it seems like we’ve been hearing that story for 40 years.
“This is the American sunset,” Will Mallett sings in the chorus of “Mexican Hat,” a narrative piece that’s punctuated with guest trumpeter Emma Stanley’s chorused lines and might remind you a bit of Dylan’s “Going to Acapulco,” if at twice the speed and volume. Simple stories of finding a wife in a diner, writing a novel to pay the bills, seem just about impossible in today’s complexity.
The Malletts explore this even more explicitly in “Different Time,” where fiddler Andrew Martelle throws on a pedal effect to make his instrument ape a clarinet and Luke imagines life in the Wild West, the pirate seas, the world of knights and serfs: “You woulda been good in a life like that.”
Now though? “This world don’t always make much sense, I find.”
And it’s true that not many bands are making music like this right now. Maybe the Michigan Rattlers, or Sturgill Simpson. Steve Earle. But the Malletts are so much more substantive than most of the country rockers going nowadays – no red Solo cups here – and often so much heavier than the string bands they often get lumped in with.
The guitar scree at the finish of the slow churning “Buffalo” is nowhere on country radio right now, that’s for sure.
But the real separator might be the softness and vulnerability that remains present, whether in the blood harmony of “Accidental Alchemy” that closes the record – “I tried so hard not to be unkind or cold” – or in the pleasant, easy rock of Nick Leen’s bass-driven melody on the album’s title track: “Paint the world in gold light/ That’s how you make it through the long, cold night.”
This is a record of perseverance, of community and coming together, of remembering to find the joy in the pain that life dishes out. “When the Blues Come Around,” driven with the pedal to the floor by drummer Brian Higgins, is something straight off the “Footloose” soundtrack, infused with that kind of unadulterated sweaty freedom.
“I was flyin’ higher than an eagle,” Will shout-sings, “doin’ my best to thread another needle.” Then the blues came around. “Nothin’ about this shit is entertaining.”
“Gold Light” is what happens when a band decides what to do next.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• B. Aull, “Pirouette” — A piece the Maine-to-Brooklyn R&B artist has been holding onto for a bit, this dance hall number full of Post Malone, the Weeknd, and Shaggy is the first new work from B. Aull for 18 months or so. More, please.
• Geoff Palmer, “This Monkey” — Featuring long-time partner in pop-punk crime Kurt Baker, this is the first single from “Charts & Graphs,” scheduled for late-July release on Stardumb Records. Come for the ’80s sentiment of Men Without Hats, stay for the psychoanalysis: “You’re trying to figure out who you are.”
• Old Town Crier, “I’m Longing for You Honey in Middleboro, Mass.” — A rambling, old-timey project from Jim Lough, this should please fans of Dylan and some of the new ramshackle folk acts like Houndmouth or Langhorne Slim. The five songs here are deliciously organic, like new works conjured for the gin joints of Westworld or some kind of alternate universe “Dirty Dancing.”
• Gentle Temper, “Same Blood” — Like a slimmed-down version of Of Monsters and Men, the gal-guy lead vocals here are at times spectacular, with all manner of “ooh-ooh-oh” Millennial yells, and some fine acoustic guitar work over light percussion. They’re Boston-based but hit Sun Tiki in Portland in October.
• Space Fog, “Every Tomorrow” — The newest project from Geoffrey Zimmerman Fox, there’s more than a little Bakersfield sound here, with dripping slide guitar and general softness around the edges. Fox lets the lyrics just fall out of him.
— Sam Pfeifle