Billed as an alt-country group from Maine, the Mallett Brothers Band have always seemed like an exercise in a multiple identities. Beginning in earnest in 2009, the band’s early albums occupied a space between heartland country — always a bit of a stretch for Portlanders — and something called “arena-country” — which, I guess, means country musicians who want to make as much money as the Avett Brothers.
But it’s over their last few albums that things have gotten interesting. In 2017, the Mallett Brothers Band whipped up The Falling of the Pine, an album of 19th century working (and drinking) songs from the Maine lumberyards. The boys sniffed out this trail stumbling upon a book in their parents’ house, an heirloom written by old world Maine folklorist Fannie Hardy Eckstorm titled The Minstrelsy of Maine: Folk Songs and Ballads of the Woods and the Coast. For any other group, it would have felt like a gimmick, but for the Malletts, it seemed to fit like a glove, a functional answer to the question, “What is Maine country music, anyway?”
In the time since, I’ve started to think of the sextet as engaged in a type of theater, a musical group engaged equally in affectation and authenticity. In a way, their music can often sound like they’re cleaving a middle-ground between both sides in the ongoing musical culture wars of covers vs. originals. Their members have played in horror-punk bands, bad hardcore, white-guy-with-dreads funk, outlaw country, tech-metal, psych-rock, and probably plenty more. But like a roving church choir, they’ve all seemed to find their way here.
Released in June, the band’s new album, sixth total and first of originals since 2015’s Lights Above the River, attempts a similar dive into Maine cultural identity. Titled Vive L’Acadie!, the 10-song album is inspired, reportedly, by the group’s exploration and appreciation of French-Canadian culture, a history that a good chunk of the band’s personnel shares.
As the odd flirtation with cultural history they began on The Falling of the Pine is still here, it’s worth recalling that it’s one the Mallett brothers have always reckoned with. Luke and Will Mallett grew up in part in Nashville, where their father, folk icon David Mallett, had turned heads as a country singer. Later, as teenagers, they moved to a family home in Sebec, population 600, in Piscatiquis County. The elder Mallett traveled much, but their grandfather and his family reportedly lived in Nova Scotia for generations.
The songs on Vive L’Acadie! are originals, not covers, but they still operate on a faultline. Perhaps because of the shine left from the last album, they somehow function like traditionals. Even within their own ranks, the Mallett Brothers play different cards. The songs on Vive are alternatingly rowdy and heady, brazen and curious, reckless and caring. If split into crude political terms, they can conjure what a lot of baby boomers like to call the two Americas (by which they mean the two prominent stereotypes of the white American millennial male), or maybe something close to what people mean when they try to talk about the urban/rural divide.
Whether any of this is intentional, the approach covers a lot of ground. Will’s songs — such as “Losin’ Horses,” “Too Much Trouble,” the title track, etc. — are all do-gooder, bleeding heart anthems, torn between such American tropes like the love of hard work or the love of a good woman — that sort of thing. Each of these stretches the band’s country fetishes over the ambiguous terrain of indie-rock. Indie-rock and country can be obsessively moody, their practitioners prone to implacable fits of yearning and desperation (particularly the males), but one genre seldom falls on the other’s ear. It’s a testament to Will’s capacities as a frontman that these songs can often be powerful enough to play to both. In “Losin’ Horses,” his performance silences the band’s noisier elements, his verses bracketing the fiddle and dobro to moments of flourish before and during the chorus. He even complicates a simple song like “Vive l’acadie!”, ostensibly a paean to girls, with nods to philosophers like Montesquieu and de Tocqueville.
Then there’s the Malletts’ other songs, which function quite differently. There’s such an abrupt shift in tone, it can feel like one of those oddly matched Clash of the Titans cover nights, where one group would play a Springsteen song and their foils would inexplicably hit the stage with something out of Stevie Ray Vaughan. You could call these songs bar-room brawlers, I guess; with hard-edged, faux-Southern country twang and a puffed-up blues-rock swagger. It’s not hard to figure a track like “Good As It Gets,” with its oft-repeated refrain of “My baby’s got the lovin’ that is sweeter than honey,” appealing to Maine’s sizable dad-rock set of blueshounds. “Gettin’ Back” is a highlight here, a thumping, hardscrabble song in 3/4, with Luke Mallett’s weathered croon shouting “I ain’t never gettin’ back” over a whirl of fiddle notes.
Whether your tastes fall within this spectrum or not, it’s impressive and noteworthy that the Mallett Brothers Band have been around this long and still sound like multiple bands. At some point, you have to recognize it’s a feature, not a bug. That they’ve done it with a bunch of lineup changes is another test of strength. The band’s new drummer is the extraordinary Chuck Gagne, who played with the psych-rock group Dominic and the Lucid for more than a decade after growing up in the very Acadian town of Fort Kent. And it’s the first album of originals with Andrew Martelle, formerly of country duo North of Nashville, playing fiddle and mandolin.
After a lengthy spring tour, the group are spending the back-end of summer playing Maine blueberry festivals, small town fairgrounds, and breweries. For the Mallett boys, in a decade-long quest for identity that’s spanned musical dynasties, multiple backgrounds, genres and cultural histories, they’re closer to home than they’ve ever been.
The Mallett Brothers Band | Aug 22 | Wed 5 pm | Union Fair Maine Blueberry Festival, Union, ME