The last two Avett Brothers albums, 2009’s I and Love and You and last year’s The Carpenter, were both widely criticized for their overproduction at the hands of the Rick Rubin and his label American Recordings. The Avetts’ latest offering, Magpie and the Dandelion, is then the group’s third major label release, and is no doubt destined for the same criticisms. The album comes out of the same sessions that produced The Carpenter and you can certainly hear how it more or less fits in as a second half to that effort, both in its highs and lows.
So far as I am concerned, the Avetts can do whatever they want. For the longest time I wouldn’t listen to them at all, too stubborn or skeptical in the face of ridiculously big hype. When I finally gave them a try, I loved their music immediately, getting hooked on Emotionalism, The Second Gleam, and I and Love and You, then digging into both The Carpenter and Mignonette. I’ll admit that as a general rule I prefer the group’s independent releases to these newer, more polished sets (I still listen to Emotionalism pretty regularly). But I really enjoy seeing where this band decides to head, what they do with their success.
While The Carpenter was certainly afflicted with a fair number of unnecessary songs I didn’t care too much about (“Paul Newman vs. the Demons” and “February Seven” for example), it did have a good set of songs the band couldn’t have produced without their new major label home. Tracks like “The Once and Future Carpenter” and “Live or Die” had more rounded, complex sounds as a result of careful orchestration and more thoughtful construction. Even a more classically Avett track like “Never Knew You” seems more complex with its subtle melodic variations in the last chorus, a touch that would no doubt have been absent on an indie release, but that here lends an increased energy to those last few rounds of the song’s hook. I’m willing to trade a few fluff songs to give the band the chance to flex a bit and see what it’s capable of given more creative space.
For the most part, Magpie plays out along the same lines. There are a good number of songs I find myself gravitating towards on each listen, and a good number of songs I find myself skipping past part way in. Tracks like “Open-Ended Life” and “Never Been Alive” feel like they would’ve done better without the high production values, seeming better suited to a classic Avett style, earthy and loud, with less mastering and more soul. I’m not sure what it is, but any time these guys pick up an electric guitar I am unimpressed. Every time they try and throw one in there to build some newer, bolder sound (check “Open-Ended” and the breakdown in “Vanity”) it just comes out muddled and forced. I don’t think anyone has ever complained the group is lacking in energy when they get going, so it’s just a little confusing to come across those parts, which seem so out of place and jarring. Even the stripped down version of “Vanity” wobbles under the weight of an unnecessary guitar solo. And I am not one to call any guitar solo unnecessary. Luckily, pieces like “Morning Song” and “Skin and Bones” resonate regardless of how meticulously each instrument was placed, not losing any power or sincerity for all the control and planning that are evident. So there are a still a few stand-out successes amidst the clutter.
Then about halfway through the album, you come across “Good to You,” which is like a case study in what the group does best. In the hands of most any other artist, a song called “Good to You” would end up cliché and mediocre. With the Avetts it’s just too damned earnest not be endearing, speaking bluntly about the difficulties of trying to care about someone while carrying on a touring career, struggling with family tragedy, loneliness, and fatherhood, all revolving around the song’s strikingly simple and honest chorus. Sure there may be some unnecessary flourishes with background vocals and so on, but you can always just ignore them. I do. That’s really where the Avett Brothers shine. Their lyrics are unflinchingly honest and sincere, something that can be tough to find these days. I feel I should also mention, there’s a great live version of “Souls like the Wheels” from the band’s earlier EP The Second Gleam, which is another highlight in my opinion, even if it is just a repackaging from an older release.
It would be very easy to write The Avett Brothers off as sell-outs. They signed to a major label, got their sound cleaned up, dressed up in nice, old-school three piece suits, and play to much larger crowds. But they are still very much so the same band. They’ve still got all the sincerity and energy. They just have a new coat of paint and some mainstream success now. I won’t begrudge them living the dream and testing the edges of their craftsmanship with these more tightly controlled songs. But as much as I want to see where the Avetts are going and what they can do, listening to the stripped-down demo versions of four of the tracks tacked onto the end of the album, I can’t help but feel a little sad that those raw, acoustic days have passed. Just a little.
Youtube doesn’t have a full album, so I just found this instead. Enjoy: