There’s little in music that bothers me more than the faux-bluegrass revival spearheaded by notorious larcenists Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. Everything about their stylings, aesthetic and musical, is false. I will never drink Blue Moon again after hearing “Ho Hey” in that stupid watercolor TV ad.
A calculated and contrived image isn’t a death knell. The members of Credence Clearwater Revival were East Bay guys masquerading as a bunch of roughhousing Bayou boys. They rocked, though. When John Fogerty yells about “chasin down a hoodoo there”, you believe him. When Marcus Mumford says anything, you wonder why he’s wearing a waistcoat. The pop-roots artists took Americana the way of the Vienna Boys Choir.
The Avett Brothers occupy an opposing space. Instead of castrating bluegrass-rock, they attempt to supercharge it with psychedelic and punk influences. I’ve never loved them, but they get my attention. These guys are excellent musicians and brilliant singers and they play to these strengths to the detriment of those listeners hoping for more experimentation. On “Magpie and The Dandelion” the Avetts add some more electric instruments. This is not their “Highway 61 Revisited”, they’re still very much an acoustic-oriented band and that’s the album’s major weakness.
Album opener “Open Ended Life’s” opening electric rhythm guitar and upper-register harmony evokes early 90s Jayhawks. A banjo adds a pleasant percussive arpeggio, but (and this is a common complaint) seems forced in to remind you that The Avett Brothers are, in fact, a band with bluegrass roots. One of the Avetts (don’t know which one) sings “I was taught to keep an open ended life and never trap myself in nothing” – Mr. Avett, you’ve trapped yourself in adherence to what you expect to sound like.
“Morning Song” follows with a gently played acoustic guitar line before settling into a fairly predictable country-rock progression. A sustained organ adds some great texture behind the Avett’s consistently excellent vocal harmonies. “Never Been Alive” is a paean to “After the Gold Rush” era Neil Young. The song is, at times, a ringer for Mr. Young’s classic “I Believe in You”. The Avetts show some Pink Floyd influence on the ride-cymbal heavy chorus. A slow, but pleasant, number.
The Avetts bust out their pop-punk influence on “Another Is Waiting”. It’s a totally wonderful mix of Everclear, Saves The Day, and folksy instrumentation. Rearrange the song with all electric instruments, and it could easily slide into Saves The Day’s classic “In Reverie”.
I swear I heard Ben Gibbard on “Bring Your Love to Me”. The banjo riff in the instrumental pre-chorus is entirely infectious and reminiscent of Death Cab’s repeated melody over root bassline style. The texture is full and ornate, unusual in a Rick Rubin production. Hard-panned banjo and guitar lines give this song a real sense of space. A standout.
Listen to “Good To You” and tell me that you don’t hear “Norwegian Wood” at the beginning, just with a piano and a sitar. All musicians lift, and if you’re going to lift, do it from the best. The sparse drum arrangement is excellent, adding force when it’s needed. I am not an admirer of Rick Rubin’s production, but he always handles drums well. In the middle 8, when the Avetts croon “time passed by and I lost my way” I was hit with a shot of David Gilmour’s turn in Pink Floyd’s “Mother”. Another great track.
The next two tracks, “Part From Me” and “Skin and Bones” are entirely forgettable for me. If you relate to the lyrics, you may appreciate these songs more.
For whatever reason, a live cut of “Souls Like The Wheels” is jammed in after “Skin and Bones”. The crowd noise totally killed my immersion in what is otherwise a cleanly produced record. The song itself is very good, an acoustic guitar and vocal lullaby with a middle eight straight out of “The Needle and The Damage Done”.
Penultimate track “Vanity” admits what every creative person has to realize – there’s a requisite vanity and narcissism in the belief that one can create something that other people should consume. The song gets as heavy as the Avetts are willing to, which is only as heavy as Wings on “Live and Let Die”.
“The Clearness Is Gone” closes the album with the country stalwart 6/8 rhythm. The electric guitar is an excellent complement. I wish they would use it more because they know how to electrify tastefully. I don’t know if its stubbornness or fan expectation or whatever else that keeps them so locked into the traditional instrumentation, but inclusion of more electric instruments would broadly expand their sonic palette and make their music less predictable. A melodic electric guitar solo with some Young-esque sloppiness makes this the album’s best track.
“Magpie and the Dandelion” is definitely worth a listen. I personally wouldn’t buy it, but I’d jump at the chance to see these guys live. The lyrics weren’t enough to keep me compelled in the less musically-engaging tracks. The Avett Brothers are so talented and tight that there’s bound to be something to appreciate in spite of their insistence on pigeonholing their sound.