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What do the Avett Brothers have in common with Kanye West? Most people would probably say not much. Their styles of music are obviously wildly different, their personalities are at the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum, and the last time I checked the Avett’s aren’t dating a member of the Kardashian clan. However, take a closer look at the liner notes for the Avett’s latest effort, Magpie and the Dandelion and their main similarity is easy to see. Rick Rubin, the legendary producer whose talents date back to founding Def Jam Records in the 1980s, produced both the Avett’s Magpie and Kanye’s latest, Yeezus. These are two albums, released within a few months of each other, were produced by the same guy and couldn’t be less alike. Or are they?
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The Avett Brothers have certainly came a long way since first bursting out onto the scene and into the iPods of adoring fans across the country. Their sound has undoubtedly grown bigger and larger, fuller and brighter. Take for instance the second track on Magpie: “Morning Song.” Towards the end of it, there’s practically a full-on choir belting out the hook, which in the grand scheme of the Avett’s discography, is a wild departure from their earlier, understated tracks like “January Wedding” or their breakout hit, “I and Love and You.” Lyrically, the themes are bigger as well. Magpie’s first single, “Another is Waiting,” focuses on the downfall of celebrity, while older Avett songs explore more intimate themes spotlighting the intricacies of human love and relationships.
Magpie is chock full of tracks that show the Avett Brothers are (very wisely) growing their sound, while remaining true to their core principles and what listeners like about them to begin with. Even one of Magpie’s strongest songs, “Open Ended Life,” alludes to this fact with it’s chorus stating, “I was told to keep an open ended life/to never trap yourself in nothing.” The last thing the Avett Brothers are doing is trapping themselves, but all the while they still execute this delicate dance of staying grounded with who they really are- arguably thanks to Rubin’s help. A connection to their earlier work can also be traced from Magpie to their 2012 effort, The Carpenter, but that’s purely by design. Magpie was recorded at the same time as The Carpenter, and is an unofficial sequel to it, but don’t be misled: Magpie is not filled with rejected Carpenter tracks and B-sides. It stands on it’s own as quite possibly one of the more robust Avett records, which is a bold statement considering the majority of the Avett’s output in their long career has been robust.
This is an album that demonstrates that the Avetts are in transition, much like Kanye West’s Yeezus showed West in transition. These are two artists who first started making music around the same time, (the Avett’s first album through a label was 2003’s A Carolina Jubilee, and West’s first two mix-tapes were released that very same year). Perhaps that’s the reason why they were both smart enough to bring in Rubin at a crucial time in their musical trajectories. After exactly a full decade of laying down tracks, it’s inevitable for artists to hit a wall, but the Avett Brothers, much like West, have avoided any trace of a musical wall with flying colors.
It’s clear with this latest effort that the Avett Brothers don’t care much for recent trends and don’t chase after something they think their fans “want” them to be, but instead is a pure taste of raw musical expression, and the resulting effort is that each track is better than the next. There’s no telling where this road takes the Avetts, but there’s no doubt I want to go to their next destination — wherever it may be.