Bobbing like a life raft in a sea of musical mediocrity,
are the Avett Brothers. When their newest album, The Carpenter
was released in September, it debuted at number four on the Billboard Charts.
Most of America had never heard of the Avett Brothers
until they performed alongside Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons
at the 2011 Grammy Awards. Despite Dylan’s persnickety reputation,
both bands accompanied him in a rousing version of “Maggie’s Farm.”
Actually, North Carolina natives Scott and Seth Avett
began their musical collaboration in childhood. By college they were
both fronting separate bands. When those enterprises kind of
fizzled they decided to pool their fraternal talents.
With Scott on Banjo and Seth on Guitar, (both share vocal duties),
the brothers recruited Upright Bassist Bob Crawford, Cellist Joe Kwon
and Jacob Edwards on drums and percussion.
The Avett Brothers debut, Country Was, came out in
2002 on the tiny Ramsur record label. By 2009 they had released five
full-length CDs and four EPs. This dizzying display of creativity created
enough buzz to get the Avett Brothers signed to Rick Rubin’s
Along with T-Bone Burnett, Rubin is probably the most
sought after producer in the industry. He is infamous both for igniting
careers, (Run D.M.C., Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Adele) and
resurrecting them (Johnny Cash, Donovan, Neil Diamond). Rick
Rubin’s imprimatur guarntees legitimacy in the music business.
The band first collaborated with Rubin on their 2009
release, I & You & Love, was an unmitigated success.
The Carpenter is their second effort together.
The album opens with “The Once And Future Carpenter.”
Anchored by heartfelt vocals, spiraling guitar riffs, swooping violin
and Benmont Tench’s intricate organ fills. The lyrics chart an
expansive travelogue that echoes Woody Guthrie’s Depression
The Avett Brothers sound isn’t easily pigeon-holed. It’s
a loose-limbed amalgam of Bluegrass, Country, Punk, Pop, Folk
Ragtime and Rock & Roll.
Three songs on The Carpenter, perfectly blend these
disparate influences: “Live & Die” is built on a rickety Banjo and
Guitar foundation. The lyrics detail an ardent lover’s plea for a
second chance. Scott Avett’s oscillating Banjo solo darts and pivots
like a pinball through the melody, coaxing this shambolic sing-a-long
On “Pretty Girl From Michigan,” rollicking Ragtime piano
arpeggios collide with some grunge-tastic guitars. The lyrics are ripe
with romantic recrimination over a long- distance relationship gone
awry…”You go back to the high life and I’ll go back to the low/ I should
have known but now I know.” The quiet-loud dynamics of the song
follow the paradigm that Nirvana perfected on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
If the Beatles ever dabbled in Bluegrass it might sound
like “I Never Knew You.” The insistent, jangly melody, paired with
the Avetts’ high harmonies belies lyrics sketching more romantic
The Avett Brothers excel at the slower numbers too.
The introspective mood and chugging tempo on “February Seven,”
echoes Rick Nelson’s classic Country-Rock hybrid, “Garden Party.”
Here the lyrics mourn lost opportunities…”There’s no fortune at the
end of a road that has no end/There’s no returning to the spoils once
you’ve spoiled the thought of them.”
Cloaked in bucolic acoustic guitar and cello, “Through My
Prayers” is a spare sad catalog of regret. Finally, “A Father’s First
Spring” is a sweet and optimistic ode to parenthood. The lyrics’
sense of wonder is matched by plangent, circuitous guitar riffs.
Both “Down With The Shine” and “Paul Newman Vs. The
Demons” represent the album’s most ambitious tracks. The former
is a grievous lament accented by a swooning horn section. The
lyrics yearn for a simpler time: “There’s nothing good, because nothing
lasts, and all that comes here comes here to pass/I would voice my
pain but the change wouldn’t last, all that comes it comes here to pass.”
“Paul Newman Vs. The Demons” is the complete antithesis
of “Down With The Shine.” While the former is sad and lugubrious,
the latter is awash with scratchy feedback guitars. They careen and
crunch, brushing up against a propulsive rhythm track. The lyrics make
oblique references to terror of addiction and Paul Newman’s charitable
endeavors. It’s pandemonium, closer to Black Sabbath than Bill Monroe,
but somehow it works!
Other highlights on The Carpenter include the quiet and desolate
“Winter In My Heart” and the droll and rip-roaring “Geraldine.”
The album closes with the hushed and prayerful “Life.”
Modest and unassuming, it offers up some pretty powerful ideas…
“Wouldn’t it be fine to stand behind the words we say in the best of times/
Oh You and I know all too well about the hell and paradise right here on earth,”
It’s bands like the Avett Brothers that defy easy categorization, that makes it
encouraging that they share chart space with Boy Bands, teen sensations,
Gangnam Style fads and auto-tuned superstars.