When it's right, "country" music has a way of bringing people together. From bluegrass jams to giant sing-alongs of "Sweet Home Alabama" to everyone crowding around to watch the Grand Ole Opry on the telly, much of the "roots" in roots music comes from the communal and family-style way in which people tend to enjoy it. When they say it's music for people from eight to 80, they aren't kidding.
Hence the Gatlin Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, the Bailes Brothers, the Statler Brothers, the Avett Brothers, and now, here in Portland, the Mallett Brothers, who play the kind of country music that's making its way into the mainstream again, with lots of acoustic guitars laying foundation for folk-rock-pop tunes with tight harmonies and cool fills from players on instruments like the fiddle, harmonica, dobro, and pedal steel.
They're bringing people together, too — and not just members of the Mallett clan, which includes dad David Mallett, of whom you should have heard if you've been paying attention. Maybe more interesting than the fact that brothers Luke and Will are making a go of this band is the fact they've grabbed two members of the former Boombazi (guitarist/mandolinist Nate Soule and bassist Nick Leen), rock/metal drummer Brian Higgins (Colepitz, Lost Cause Desperados, even some time with As Fast As), and sound wizard and former hip-hop experimentalist and Horror member Wally Wenzel, who now supplies guitar and dobro. That is one seriously diverse collection of players.
Generally, you see that kind of gravitational pull to a band when there is songwriting with a vision, and charisma to boot, and the Mallett Brothers Band deliver on both of those counts ably. Though they aren't exactly leading a new revolution in Americana music, the songs are smart and rarely cookie-cutter, and, most importantly, they deliver an energy that's hard to deny on their debut, self-titled album, to be released this weekend with a show at the Empire.
At 12 songs and 45 minutes, there is a lot that's not going to surprise anyone on first listen to the disc. There are hard-driving rockers, slow-burn ballads, bluesy and rockabilly numbers that explore genres — it's a rootsy, alt-country type of thing that fits in nicely with a music collection that features Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avetts, the Hackensaw Boys, even the local Dark Hollow Bottling Company.
So, what's to listen for? Well, the Malletts do some things to try to stand out from the crowd. Like on "Last Man Standing," where they lend some spaghetti-Western vibe to the song with a chiming, raw, ultra-distorted electric guitar that almost sounds like a cymbal crashing or a bunch of plates dropped on the floor. Pair that wash with the excellent pair of flat-picked guitar leads and you've got a pretty interesting contrast. "Emily" has some flair, too, where they take that old-timey Texas swing and amp it up into a G Love vibe, with gang vocals and a late-arriving fiddle that pops into the chorus.
But none of that crap works if the songs suck. Nice arrangements quickly become window-dressing and over-production if there isn't a good foundation, so it's nice to hear a great poppy sing-along early in the record with "Walk Down the River," where "there ain't no girls like the girls in Maine." Between the chiming electric guitar and the old-time cowboy-country bass it's playful without being silly and is the kind of song that should wind up on summer playlists.