The Avett Brothers
(American Recordings/Republic Records)
3.5 out of 5 stars
When did we last find perennial roadmen The Avett Brothers in the studio? It was 2009, and the North Carolina siblings had released I And Love And You, a solemn major-label debut that catapulted the boys into the middle of a new folk revival alongside bands that had just swapped their Big Muffs for banjos. So it’s easy to assume that The Avetts only recently picked up the bluegrass and old time melodies that are the skeleton of their music – in reality, they’ve been playing roots and acoustic music since the late ’90s, when Seth and Scott Avett ditched their rock acts and followed the unshakable draw of genetics to play together permanently, brothers in blood and hollow-body-holdin’ arms.
And if you trace their sound back to 2002, when they first self-released Country Was, you’d here a bare, warm record bursting with old time romp; banjo, dobro and traditional vocals set to a new world beat. Recently reissued, it feels just as current now as it would in the era it pays tribute to: after all, this is the age of Mumford & Sons, Fleet Foxes and a weird phenomenon of six-stringed instruments and harmonies wrestling with Auto-Tune pop songs for radio time – and often winning. But as folk music has become increasingly mainstream, The Avett’s music has veered further away from both their roots and roots in general: take “Paul Newman Vs. The Demons,” off of their seventh studio album The Carpenter, which pulls Death Cab for Cutie guitar lines and distortion into their woodsy web. It’s a full-on rock song, way more Seattle than Shenandoah Valley. Crunchy feedback is a funny thing to hear from a one-time string band.
It’s not that the Avetts have made a full transition to indie popdom, swayed by the irresistible bearded wiles of producer Rick Rubin. There are plenty of folk melodies on The Carpenter, many harmonies and fiddle embellishments that nail them firmly as princes of the Americana movement. There’s less piano than last time, too, but there’s just too little banjo. Unlike Old Crow Medicine Show, who dealt with the mass-culture-ification of their genre by going full-force into Appalachia on Carry Me Back, The Avett Brothers have smoothed out and up. The band, who played the main stage at Bonnaroo this year and has developed a reputation for fiery, fervent live shows, is polished and poppy on their last studio offering and even more so here: on the first single, “Live And Die,” some notes are so produced they nearly sound – gasp – Auto-Tuned.
The album kicks off with “The Once And Future Carpenter”; “Remember, we’re all in this together,” Seth Avett sings, “if I live the life I’ve given, I won’t be scared to die.” It’s one of many personal lines rooted in self-reflection. If there’s one thing that defines the brothers it is their ability to craft these wistful phrases, often sad or lovelorn, that others might not be able to get away with: the warmth of the vocals softly shadows the lack of self-consciousness in the lyrics. Take “Winter In My Heart,” a slow ballad to a simple, distant guitar strum full of statements like “calendar says July 4th, but it’s still winter in my heart.” In another context, that could come off as freshman year poetry. Here, the earnestness makes you cave in a little.
There’s no shortage of catchy, bopping crowd pleasers on The Carpenter, and the Avetts churn them out with gusto and pride: like the sunny pop of “I Never Knew You,” the doo-wop of “Pretty Girl From Michigan” and the ’90s rock tone of “Geraldine.” The problem is, for all the sheen and Rick Rubin fairy dust, so much of it sounds, well, dusty. There’s nothing particularly forward thinking or novel – though, for the band’s devoted following who judges worth on concerts rather than studio albums, it may not really matter.
There are some standouts: “February 7” and “A Father’s First Spring” are both acoustic ballads that kick into lush instrumentals, and “Down With The Shine,” a horn-embellished anthem driven by a waltzing beat and a chorus that proclaims firmly: “down with the glistening shine.” If you’ve had a chance to see this performed live, it’s even more electric: thumped through banjo, kick drum and Scott Avett’s ringleader shout, it’s imperfect, loose and powerful. It’s dished-out advice they need to take themselves: down with the shine, Avetts. Down with the shine.