The Mallett Brothers Band’s latest album gives new life to old backwoods ballads.
By Nick Schroeder
[dropcap letter=”T”]he Mallett Brothers Band packed their first four albums chock-full of crackling Americana, a foot-stomping patchwork of country, folk, and rock. But the usually rowdy sextet hits quieter notes on their latest album, The Falling of the Pine, a ruminative collection of 19th-century lumber-camp songs lent new melodies and arrangements. Across 10 tracks of rich instrumentation and absorbing harmonies, the Portland-based Malletts revitalize bygone tales of the triumphs and yearnings of working Mainers. For state history buffs — or for fans of the Avett Brothers, Okkervil River, or even Springsteen — the Malletts’ record deserves a serious listen.
Some 90 years ago, folklorists Fannie Hardy Eckstorm and Mary Winslow Smyth collected dozens of backwoods tunes in a tome titled The Minstrelsy of Maine: Folk Songs and Ballads of the Woods and the Coast, after doggedly traveling the state to preserve the disappearing oral tradition. “Vivid in color, Homeric in simplicity, here are the old woods and the old Yankee woodsmen,” Eckstorm wrote in her prologue — a pronouncement the Malletts borrow as an epigraph to their album’s liner notes.
Bandleaders Luke and Will Mallett first found an old copy of The Minstrelsy of Maine at their parents’ house. “We thought it might be a fun, quick little project, to interpret a handful of tunes,” Will says. But the brothers enjoyed it so much they decided to get the whole band involved. “We’ve been approaching this more as a history and art project,” Will says. “If it convinces one or two young or old folks to dive into historic Maine music, we feel like we’ve accomplished our goal.”
On the album, the bandmates dig, hammer, and carve their way into these historic numbers and unearth a whole lot of authenticity and grit in the process. For a group of Portland boys, some of whom have spent time in hip-hop and metal bands, their North Woods twang has never rung as earnest or believable as when they’re giving reverent treatment to these workingman’s songs. The results are both fresh and timeless. The title track comes closest to the typical Mallett sound — a rollicking jamboree that’d set any tavern alight — while ballads like “Lake Chemo” show off the band’s ability to spin restrained melodies. Throughout, Will Mallett’s winsome delivery seems to weigh the feeling behind every word.
Fiddler Andrew Martelle says the group set out to present the Maine lumberjack as “the North Woods equivalent of the cowboy”: a rugged outsider with a flair for philosophy and a capacity for intricate lyricism, like in “The Logger’s Boast”: “When the white frost gilds the valleys, the cold congeals the flood; / When many men have naught to do but earn their family’s bread; / When the swollen streams are frozen, and the hills are clad with snow, / O! we’ll range the wild woods over, and a lumbering we will go.”
That song becomes the record’s fitting centerpiece, with Will and Luke’s old man — renowned singer-songwriter David Mallett — contributing vocals. The elder Mallett’s weathered, resonant voice has the effect of looping The Falling of the Pine into the continuum of Maine folk heritage, as if the album were floating from one river town to another, down the flow of time.