It will probably come as no surprise to you that I am not a fan of much of what passes for country music these days. I find Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and all the rest of those Axe-drenched, tight jeans-wearing, blank-eyed pretty boys dominating the country Billboard charts to be among the most boring music to ever trudge across the airwaves. It’s factory-produced pop-country trash, and I don’t care if anyone gets mad at me for saying that.
It might actually surprise you, however, to know that I do really like country music — when it’s performed by singers that can really sing (Eric Church, Miranda Lambert), musicians that can really play their instruments (the Zac Brown Band, Brad Paisley), and songwriters who can write a damned good song (Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves). It’s artists and bands like that that keep country music vital, reaching far beyond songs about girls, trucks and beer to grasp at something smart, relevant and real.
Somewhere in that trinity of chops, emotion and authenticity lies Maine’s own Mallett Brothers Band, whose fourth album, “Lights Along The River,” came out last week. The Malletts — comprised of co-songwriters Will and Luke Mallett (sons of famed Maine songwriter David Mallett), bassist Nick Leen, multi-instrumentalists Matt Mills and Wally Wenzel and drummer Brian Higgins — has always walked a wobbly line between rock and country. That line has never been more blurry than it is on “Lights,” recorded over ten days last fall on the shores of the Mallett’s spiritual and actual homeland, Sebec Lake in Piscataquis County.
“Lights,” produced by the Malletts themselves and mixed by the indefatigable Jonathan Wyman, kicks off with the heartfelt “Late Night in Austin,” but wastes no time moving right into the kind of revved-up country-rock rave-up that they’ve become known for — “There Are No Rules In This Game” has got to be a doozy of a song to hear live, chugging along at just the right pace to lift your drink and sing along to. Similarly, the bluesy stomp of “Rocking Chair” blasts off thanks to some nasty slide guitar, the road-weary, banjo-heavy “Tennessee” keeps a breezy, speedy pace, while “Tip Up” sounds straight out of the 1990s country playbook — albeit amped up with a Def Leppard-esque chorus, and singing the praises of getting hammered while ice fishing. If you happen to hear “Tip Up” live and you don’t at least smile and nod your head, you might not be a very fun person to hang out with.
The rest of the album moves away from those rave-ups, however, and finds the Malletts in a more lyrical, introspective place, from the sweet acoustic love song “Sunny Day” to the swampy, folky “Sam Wood,” to the title track. “Lights Along The River” is one of the prettiest songs the band has ever written, one that might be about missing home — Maine, beautiful Maine — or might just be about something a little more abstract. Either way, it’s a simple, powerful song, fleshed out by harmonies and by David Mallett’s mandolin playing.
The Malletts are probably the most popular band in Maine right now, and with good reason — they make music that’s simultaneously heartfelt and fun, as good for kicking back and being thoughtful with a couple cold ones as it is for tearing it up on the dance floor. That’s kind of country music in a nutshell, isn’t it? Let’s hope the band finds the crossover appeal they seem to be reaching for with “Lights,” an album that’s as strong a statement for national recognition as the band has yet made.
The Mallett Brothers Band will play on May 16 at the All Roads Music Festival in Belfast, and on June 12 at the Bethel Moose Fest in Bethel.