It's hard to see where The Devil Makes Three fits into Americana/Roots music. To be sure, Pete Bernhard, Lucia Turino and Cooper McBean have an estimable body of work, well represented on "Chains Are Broken." But the field of mid-level singer-composer groups is crowded. There's always room for standout material and musicianship, and The Devil Makes Three continues to bid for broader appeal.
"Chains Are Broken" gets better with repeated listens. The band is very accomplished in creating new material, and "Chains" continues that run. On the other hand, the production presents itself in a narrow range, the vocals are, on balance, thin, and the lyrics present great possibility, but sometimes fail to meet their initial promise.
Much of the material on "Chains" is dark, or at least foreboding. "Deep Down," toward the end of the disc, has the refrain "Deep in my heart, I am a terrible man. I know what I am." But the tempo is jaunty, and belies the truth-telling of the lyrics. "Bad Idea" is about all the dim choices made throughout a lifetime, but at its core, it's just an enumeration of these wrong turns, without much examination of how one gets there or gets out of it.
The most genuine creations feature easy harmonies and a loping tempo. The lyric simplicity undermines many songs, though. Take "Castles," whose chorus is "We are the ocean, castles made of sand." Not much new ground broken there.
There are many bands in the same spot as The Devil Makes Three that display real vision and passion. The Dustbowl Revival and The Black Lillies are but two examples. These bands, like DM3, travel the Americana road, playing in biggish clubs and smallish theatres, sometime opening for upper level bands, and trying to take that next step. There's little on "Chains Are Broken" that makes the case for Devil Makes Three to make the next move up.
"Chains Are Broken" will fully satisfy existing fans. It's unlikely to propel the band to the next level. Even so, there is a lot to be said for a self-assured band like The Devil Makes Three that knows its audience and reliably delivers solid material. The lyrical chops may still be a work in process, but the vision is strong.