In the interest of full disclosure, here is a somewhat abridged account of my relationship with the Avett Brothers as a musical entity: one night in the autumn of 2008, when I was probably seventeen years old and a junior in high school, I was riding in the backseat of my friend Carrie’s blue Jeep with two of my other good friends, Justin and Morgan, around the streets and highways of South Carolina. Cycling through the tracks on a mixed CD and/or the shuffle function on her iPod (I can’t remember for certain, but I know there was a huge collection of CDs in that automobile), she landed on something that was new and exciting to me but which had become, to my admittedly much cooler friends, something of a way of life. This was the first time I heard the opening strums of “Die Die Die,” the first song on the 2007 album Emotionalism, and it tore up every Hendrix-laden notion of my personal preferences at the time. Bruce Springsteen once said of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that it “sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind.” In the context of my own teenage taste, the same explosion happened in that Jeep.
It quickly became an obsession. I received Emotionalism for Christmas (after having already downloaded it…sorry guys. I owe you one.) along with an XBox 360 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and I put the album on the console’s hard drive. It became a pretty ridiculous sight to anyone who came upstairs: here I would be, virtually annihilating probable 12-year-olds (or, more frequently, getting blown to smithereens by probable 12-year-olds) to the forlorn regret of “Shame.” It was kind of appropriate, in truth.
I felt like I was just barely in on the ground floor of this regional fandom. These guys came from Concord, North Carolina, a northern suburb of Charlotte, and I originated just south of there. So many of the values and experiences described in the songs aligned so perfectly. This was 1970s New Jersey, and these guys were our E Street Band. The universality, the loneliness, the romance, the intensity and the hope all played out in front of religious overtones. The melodies sounded like everything we had always known but never quite pinned down, and the harmonies alluded to early Beatles records. The instrumentation spoke to bluegrass sensibilities, but the band was never strictly bluegrass, or strictly anything at all. The frenetic stage presence built an almost instantly legendary reputation.
Then came The Gleam recordings, two sets of songs which, with their bare twin guitar arrangements, leaned more toward indie folk than to bluegrass. The second Gleam spawned my postgraduate, leaving-this-town-for-New York City anthem, “Murder In The City,” and the gentility with which that song and others from that time hinted at a progression forward for the band. During this period, the band was signed to its first major label contract with Columbia Records, an indication of greater ambition and of a greater inclination to the future. That led us to 2009’s I And Love And You, the Rick Rubin-produced opus which catapulted the Avetts from working class regional heroes to festival headliners.
The band’s march forward continued through The Carpenter, another Rubin production that fazed out Scott Avett’s trademark banjo twang almost entirely in favor of pianos, double-acoustic guitar arrangements and the increased support of Joe Kwon, the band’s cellist. The album was poppy and folky, again not really fitting any genre in particular, but it largely disregarded the Avetts’ roots.
Enter Magpie and the Dandelion, the raucous new album from the Avetts which streamed on NPR.org for a week prior to its official release. Rick Rubin returns as the producer, but this album is a return to the simplicity of pre-Rubin work, with fewer heavily-produced ballads and more introspection than had been the case on the prior record. The cleanliness of the Scott Avett’s guitar and the hammered drums on “Open-Ended Life,” the album’s opening track, sound almost like they belong on a Tom Petty record, and the sound of Seth’s banjo accompanied by a harmonica breathes life and breeds excitement for the remainder of the album. When the song breaks into a folk-rock hoedown, the tone is set.
With all its timeless sentiment, “Morning Song” could have easily been on either of the Gleam recordings, despite the added instrumentation. The lyrics are perfectly dismissive of those who aren’t down with the cause: “It’s alright if you finally stop caring/Just don’t go and tell someone that does.” The light hint of Hammond organ spins around the harmonies, creating a swirling freedom for the brothers’ shared vocal duties. The choral coda just prior to the song’s end is magnificently and evenly arranged, allowing everyone to find that melody alone. “Never Been Alive” almost has a Pete Yorn or Wallflowers feel to it, with its heavy drum patterns and lush electric guitar runs.
“Another is Waiting” is the anointed star of the show, the spiritual successor to careening romps like “Live and Die” and “Pretty Girl From Cedar Lane.” Seth Avett’s rolling, steam-of-consciousness lyrics are almost Dylanesque, if not for the fact that this song is only a little over two minutes long. The tenderness is there, amid rollicking chords and a pounding banjo line. The song contains one of the best aspects of Avett fanhood, a quintessential element in the healing formula they have concocted: a huge build-up leading to a quiet breakdown, which leads directly back into a bubbling, catchy chorus. “Bring Your Love to Me” is almost haunting, containing elements of late 90s radio rock and a drop-tuned guitar which carries the song along. Seth’s melody recalls the fright of Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins, and his plea of simply “trying to help” tugs at the heartstrings so gently that you may forget what you really want.
Fans of I And Love And You, as well as people who adored the Lumineers’ self-titled debut album, will similarly love “Good to You.” The darling, piano-based arrangement thunders along, surrounded by high-flying and fierce vocal patterns. One can very easily forget the weird time signature due to the warmth and familiarity of the song. Let’s cut to the real chase here: Bob Crawford’s verse, a rare spotlight moment for the humble bassist. More than capable of delivering a high-quality harmony himself, Crawford seldom seizes the microphone on his own. For those familiar with his vocal work on “The Lowering (A Sad Day In Greenvilletown)” and “Left on Laura, Left on Lisa,” this is not the same man. His turn is splendidly and appropriately beautiful, and for those familiar with his daughter Hallie’s fight against brain cancer, it is especially poignant: “When you were born I promised myself/I’d always be there for you/To help you feel safe and never alone/No matter what life put you through.” Scott Avett carries the track, but Bob Crawford makes it his.
“Part From Me” sounds like another Gleam leftover, with its muted instrumentation, laid-back vocals and drum-less rhythms. Its spirited and bright close sparkles, allowing the band to comfortably stretch out its musical muscles. The next track, “Skin and Bones,” recalls the high-energy, low-fidelity nature of Mignonette, with all the freaked-out angst of the newer albums. The banjo on this song admittedly sounds a little unnecessary, a rare misstep from Rubin and the Avetts in terms of arrangement, if there must be one. The live version of “Souls Like The Wheels,” a song that actually was on The Second Gleam and highlights Seth Avett’s vocal improvisational abilities, serves as the definitive bridge in the gap between pre-Rubin Avett albums and the three he has produced.
“Vanity” received a much-lauded treatment on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, in which Chris Cornell joined the Brothers to contribute on vocals and guitar. This track occurs in three acts with an almost entirely unrelated middle section, similar to those in “The Perfect Space.” It seems almost like an “A Day in the Life” amalgamation of two completely separate songs, both of which would have been more than welcome as standalone tracks and which together sound somewhat strange but not entirely unwelcome. “The Clearness is Gone” lets the listener take a much-needed breather at the end of an exhaustingly fun set. It is an easygoing yet weighty song with a rare and well-paced electric guitar solo, the kind of song that could have just as easily been discarded from the Layla sessions as included on an Avett Brothers record.
The Avetts’ return to rootsy sentimentality and more direct rock-tinged-folk keeps the brothers fresh while recognizing their foundation. As the band propels forward, its creativity continues to grow in unexpected ways while retaining the comfortable familiarity that was the catalyst for a decade-long rise. Fans new and old should be pleased with Magpie and the Dandelion for a number of reasons, most of which are related to the resurgence of the banjo in the Avett Brothers’ repertoire and the final steps toward fully assimilating their incendiary performance style with Rick Rubin’s painstakingly meticulous production. Magpie is a charming record suitable for any audience, and the Avetts are the perfect vehicle for jettisoning into uncharted territory because they and their audience can do it together, a trait often lost in the egotism and self-indulgent experimentation of many contemporary pop artists.