The Avett Brothers sing of pretty girls from unfamiliar towns, to the tune of a raspy banjo unfamiliar to today’s radio waves. What they sing about transcends geography and time: love, loss, mistakes, and yard sales. Proving men can be simple without being trite. Profound without harboring pride. Soul-baring but not burdensome.
This year brought signing with Columbia Records and Rick Rubin to produce the “rock” album I and Love and You. The Avett’s roots remain grounded in North Carolina soil with Dolphus Ramseur of their cradle label, Ramseur Records, as manager. Given the chance, the so called ‘Avett Nation’ request list to Rubin may have looked something like this: Don’t shine them up, don’t cut their hair, don’t force them to sing on key and whatever you do, keep your hands off the banjo.
Given these, ‘tis no surprise this release meets mixed emotions: the embrace or the shove away. Sometimes both. But do these emotions defend the integrity of the artist or provide protection for the fan should the artist change into something unfamiliar or disappointing?
In the rising stock of The Avett Brothers, their longtime fans have some serious investment. The band sang about their towns, reconnecting them to the tune of sounds grown up on but lost somewhere in an overindulgence of grunge, emo, or bubble gum-country. They won them over show by show. Fans stood in the crowd with them, elbow to elbow, watching their label-mates perform at the venue they just outgrew. The brothers did this with venue after rickety venue until they sold out the nicest 2000 seat theater in town. Fans stood next to the band’s families, then girlfriends (now wives) and friends to ring in at least the last five New Years.
This year, for the first time in many, it appears the hometown boys will not come home for New Years.
Enter the catch-22. Hometown fans helped them as they evangelized their rag-tag, punk rock bluegrass to friends down the street, in the next state, in college out west. For the first time in a long time, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina sent a band off to the big time and now lives with the consequences: sounds exposed to tinkering by production-happy producers and tight tour schedule leaving precious few stops for cities already won-over.
The sound of I and Love and You differs from past releases — clearly a move towards the more widely embraceable and marketable. At first listen, Rubin appears to have terribly misappropriated the percentages of banjo and piano. The brandished banjo is a central component of past albums (thankfully, still live shows) and it’s clearly relegated to the backseat in this ride. At best it’s sharing the bench seat, rolling three deep, squashed between the piano and drum kit. Long time bassist and blood brother Bob Crawford trades in the stand up for the electric more than ever before. Thankfully, Joe Kwon’s cello takes a more prominent and, hopefully, permanent position.
“Slight Figure of Speech” comes off controlled and manufactured. “Kick Drum Heart” is so very poppy but ventures just enough outside the box to retain integrity with tempo changes and their signature screams. “The Perfect Space” delightfully leads on as a ballad, mournful cello, before letting loose with some therapeutic piano slamming and shouting. Ballads “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” and “Incomplete and Insecure” belie worries the brothers have bitten the apple of celebrity ego.
“Ill With Want”’s a selfless confession, which preaches without forcing guilt: “I am lost in greed, this time it’s definitely me/I point fingers but there’s no one there to blame… Free is not your right to chose/It’s answering what’s asked of you/To give the love you find until it’s gone”.
The album is full from beginning to end — almost too full of a sound to adjust to. Indulgent even. Where sound overly engulfs or vocal performances restrain, the stories and lyrics still give raw emotion without being sappy and remain sentimental without compromising masculinity. The band’s live shows are the telltale heart they remain as raw as ever. Case in point, NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert this summer. On the album, the cut “Laundry Room” exemplifies classic Avett simplicity in both sound and story complete with a bluegrass bridge. But it feels dangerously restrained. Compare the album track to the live version on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert and the former is clearly a half-living rendition. “January Wedding” is comfortable old pair of jeans. Vintage Avett.
So, we indulge. Somehow when we stop fearing we’ve invested too much, we stop being overly critical, listen with less jaded ears, and start to enjoy the music for what it is: a band serving up something unlike anything else manufactured today. Whatever gracious credit they give their fans, brothers Seth and Scott Avett deserve full credit for every accolade and ounce of fame. They sing honestly. Their sound is unique. Their stage presence is un-engineer-able and, no matter what iTunes says, their genre is still “unclassifiable.”
We raise our favorite artists and release them into the world with pensive hope — that they will be loved for their talent and return to us unscathed. This seems hardly possible in a world where as much satisfaction comes from building celebrities to the sky as does watching them fall to the ground. Fame and fortune that does not destroy is the exception, not the norm. As long as The Avett Brothers make good on the promise they made to their hometown as we ended 2008 with them:
Now they may pay us off in fame
But that is not why we came
And if it compromises truth
Then we will go
Truth has been and will be their salvation. Fans are safe to embrace their sounds, whether comfortable and broken-in, or uneasy and different. As long as they keep doing what they’ve done so well: singing honestly about the journey — the roads they take, the people they know, the beauty and disappointment met…and for goodness sake, busting a few banjo strings along the way — we’re along for the ride.