In the realm of swaying, stomping, harmonic pop-folk, The Avett Brothers stand only in the shadow of Mumford & Sons, a recent success story that, perhaps not-coincidentally, the long-running North Carolina brother-band is starting to bear more than a passing resemblance to. Comparing Mumford’s lone album to the Avett’s discography previously yielded only superficial comparisons: po-faced, earnest lyricism; the tell-tale lilt of a banjo here and there; shouty, fractured harmonies.
But where the Mumfords use their Appalachian sensibilities to obscure what are, essentially, a series of mainstream pop numbers (Youtube Taio Cruz’s squawking dance-pop take on “Little Lion Man” to see how easily the songs transition from genre to genre), the Avetts were always something a little more fiery, thrashing their acoustic instruments like metal gods, incorporating a raw, muscular garage-rock stomp to their brand of Americana. Recent work with bearded studio guru Rick Rubin has streamlined the Avetts’ sound a bit, however, and heavy radio rotation of recent single “Live and Die” seems to suggest that the dressing-up of the Brothers has made its mark on a mainstream increasingly more open to this sort of thing.
New record The Carpenter seems to follow suit. It’s not merely higher fidelity that suggests the album as a sneaky bid for mainstream success; The Carpenter is even more mild-mannered than predecessor I and Love and You, strangely short on those moments of frenetic, nuts-first abandon of early independent records Four Thieves Gone and even semi-breakthrough Emotionalism. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but longtime members of Avett Nation might find the experience a bit more watered-down than they’re used to.
Fortunately, in terms of pure melody, Scott and Seth have nailed down one of their most potent sets of tunes to date. “The Once and Future Carpenter” and “Pretty Girl From Michigan” are the sort of soaring mid-tempo numbers that the Brothers brought home so valiantly back in the Emotionalism days. Their raw, throaty harmonies remain a highlight – there’s a mid-period Beatles lope to “Pretty Girl” that highlights the Avetts’ go-for-broke bluegrass-Lennon-and-McCartney sensibility, and the appearance of Eagles-y electric-guitar jabs juices up the proceedings considerably. “I Never Knew You” finds Scott in rare form, his forceful, homegrown tenor a newfound asset in the band’s canon. Elsewhere, “Geraldine” clocks in at a breathless 97 seconds, and it’s a brief resurgence of the Avetts of yore.
The Avetts are considerably less successful when branching out of their mid-tempo sweet spot. The jagged, angular “Paul Newman Vs. The Demons” recalls Guided By Verses at their most spindly and jittery, and the brother’s vocals simply aren’t suited to garage-rock. It seems disingenuous to deride the band for their ballads, especially when they’re as genuine and heartfelt as the ones on The Carpenter, but they’re also huge snoozers; songs like “Through My Prayers” and “Life” never display the melodic gifts the Avetts slowly bled out on earlier numbers like “All My Mistakes” or the aching “Ballad of Love and Hate”.
The Carpenter is a fine record, all told, but sometimes the Avett Brothers relax a bit too much; but, hey, if it takes “Live and Die” (a swaying, lovely, summery confection if there ever was one) to alert the general public to a band they’ve ignored for far too long, this longtime Avetts fan is all for it. All of you kids who have made modern-day superstars out of Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters and Men, and The Lumineers, react accordingly.