Big Dave McLean is back and sounding as cranky as ever, and that’s a good thing. McLean’s new release Better the Devil You Know is produced by fellow Canadian and string wizard, Steve Dawson. This album is McLean’s second for Black Hen Music, Dawson’s label, and reunites him with the same players who made the last album, Faded but Not Gone, such a treat for the ears.
McLean never sounds better than when he’s grousing about something, and there is plenty to like here. The thirteen tracks consist of five new McLean originals, as well as covers of Muddy Waters, and Jonathan Parker Millsap.
Big Dave starts the album off with “Life on the Road,” an ode to making a living playing gigs. As the song rumbles along on the rhythm section of Gary Craig and Jon Dymond, McLean tells the listener “I’m living out the dream, or so it would seem.” The hint of sarcasm in the lyric is born out in McLean’s gruff delivery. You get the distinct impression McLean sings with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Kevin McKendree lights up the second track, the Muddy Water’s chestnut, “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had.” McKendree’s piano solo is playful and bawdy all at once, and offsets the tale of loss with a measure of subtlety. McLean’s vocal is convincing and appropriately dour, as if the sting was still fresh.
Steve Dawson’s production is deft and a perfect fit for McLean. Dawson’s fretwork on eight different instruments fleshes out the material. He has just the right touch for each song, and varies the arrangements so as to showcase each performance in its own light. McLean returns the favor, covering two Dawson compositions, the best of which is the tragic blues, “Angeline.”
One of the best songs on the album features the strong backing of the McCrary Sisters, on the traditional number “You’ll Need Somebody on Your Bond.” Riding on a shuffle beat, McLean and the McCrarys toss caution to the wind and dive into the song headfirst, with a zeal that results in simple, giddy fun. Fats Kaplan’s delirious Arkansas fiddle pushes the whole thing over the top. This is the kind of track that the repeat button was made for.
The sin and salvation theme resurfaces several times on the record and McLean is our favorite sinner turned struggling saint. You can imagine him playing these songs with a wink in his eye and a sly grin on his face. His vocal performance is full tilt boogie. The man sounds like an ice truck with a busted axle; his voice is glorious to behold. Grab a beer, and settle in with The Devil You Know; you’re in for a great time.