The Mallett Brothers Band’s latest album breathes new life into old backcountry ballads.
By Nick Schroeder
[dropcap letter=”T”]The Mallett Brothers Band packed their first four albums filled with crackling Americana, a mind-boggling patchwork of country, folk and rock. But the generally rowdy sextet hits quieter notes on their latest album, The fall of the pine, a ruminative collection of 19th century logging camp songs lent new melodies and arrangements. Through 10 pieces of rich instrumentation and absorbing harmonies, the Portland Malletts revitalize bygone tales of the triumphs and aspirations of working Mainers. For fans of state history – or fans of the Avett Brothers, Okkervil River, or even Springsteen – the Malletts record deserves serious listening.
Some 90 years ago, folklorists Fannie Hardy Eckstorm and Mary Winslow Smyth put together dozens of backwood melodies in a tome titled Le Ménestrel du Maine: folk songs and ballads of the woods and the coast, after having stubbornly traveled the state to preserve the endangered oral tradition. “Bright colors, Homeric in simplicity, here are old woods and old Yankee lumberjacks,” Eckstorm wrote in his prologue – a statement the Mallets borrow as an epigraph from their album cover notes.
Conductors Luke and Will Mallett first found an old copy of The minstrel of Maine with their parents. “We thought this would be a fun, quick little project to perform a handful of songs,” Will says. But the brothers liked it so much that they decided to involve the whole group. “We’re approaching this more as a history and art project,” says Will. “If that convinces one or two young or old to immerse themselves in historic Maine music, we feel like we’ve achieved our goal.”
On the album, the band members dig, hammer and work their way through these historic numbers and unearth a lot of authenticity and courage in the process. For a Portland boy group, some of whom have spent time in hip-hop and metal bands, their North Woods twang has never sounded so serious or believable as when they treat these songs with respect. workers. The results are both fresh and timeless. The title track comes closest to Mallett’s signature sound – a rousing jamboree that would set any tavern on fire – while ballads like “Lake Chemo” showcase the band’s ability to spin restrained melodies. Throughout, Will Mallett’s alluring delivery seems to weigh the sentiment behind every word.
Violinist Andrew Martelle said the group intended to portray the Maine lumberjack as “the North Woods equivalent of the cowboy”: a hardy outsider with a flair for philosophy and an ability for complex lyricism, as in “The Logger’s Boast”: “When the white frost gilds the valleys, the cold freezes the flow; / When many men have nothing to do but earn bread for their families; / When the swollen streams are frozen and the hills are covered in snow, / O! we will go through the wild woods, and we will go to the logging.
This song becomes the centerpiece of the record, with Will and Luke’s old man – acclaimed singer-songwriter David Mallett – contributing vocals. Elder Mallett’s altered and resonant voice has the effect of looping The fall of the pine in the continuum of Maine’s folklore heritage, as if the album floated from one river town to another, over time.