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Published: 2012/10/03
by Sam Robertson

The Avett Brothers
The Carpenter

Universal Republic

Rock journalists are strange breed. We are consumed by a desire to be the first to discover the next big thing – and then sometimes we’re also the first to distance ourselves from that new band once they make it big. Go ahead and call it the High Fidelity music snob disease, all music journalists catch it at some point. And as a result of a bad case of that disease, when The Avett Brothers released their 2009 breakthrough album I & Love & You, I absolutely hated it. Like the worst type of music snob, I even took my dislike one step further and despised the band as a whole simply because what that album seemed to represent. Though eventually I did warm up to I & Love & You (and it took quite a while), at first it felt like the rowdy folk-punk band I had fallen in love with in a sweaty, dive bar was hidden behind an impenetrably dense wall of Rick Rubin’s overbearing production. With their new album The Carpenter, The Avett Brothers move slightly away from the grandiose, cinematic pop of I & Love & You and take a step back towards their roots. Rubin returns for The Carpenter, but this time with a lighter touch that allows The Avett Brothers’ folksy charm and outstanding songwriting to remain the focus.

The Carpenter opens with an acoustic guitar that sounds straight from the back porch of their home in North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains, and “The Once And Future Carpenter” has the rustic touch of the band’s earlier albums. A plucking banjo greets the listener on “Live And Die,” but when an electric slide guitar enters the fray later in the song, it surprisingly sounds perfectly in place. While The Carpenter feels like The Avett Brothers drifting closer to their acoustic beginnings, they also have not completely deserted the more musically ambitious approach of I & Love & You. And, for the most part, the mix works. The drums and electric guitars are out in full force by the album’s fourth song “Pretty Girl From Michigan,” but this time, the touches of electric guitar, drums, and keys are more tasteful and better serve the song. The piano riffs and organ swells are subtler and the drums less overpowering, while the Avetts’ lyrics and soaring harmonies are front and center where they belong.

“Pretty Girl From Michigan” and “Geraldine” are catchy, electric guitar-driven rockers, but the core of The Avett Brothers is their ability to write heart-tugging ballads about those “big” life subjects, and there is no shortage of those here. “Winter In My Heart” is simply as good as lonesome ballads get, with Scott Avett’s vocals especially tender. The mortality-driven “Through My Prayers” is equally touching, and balanced out by the new spring feel of “A Father’s First Spring.” With an entire catalog full of songs about life, love, loneliness and loss; The Avett Brothers threaten to become a repetitive parody of themselves lyrically, but deliver these songs so earnestly that they manage to steer clear of that trap.

In “Down With The Shine,” they sing, “Down with the shine, the perfect shine, that poisons the well and ruins my mind.” Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek nod to the polished sound of I & Love & You, “Down With The Shine” attacks the sleekness and commercial obsessiveness of today’s world. And though there is still plenty of production on The Carpenter – the raw near-punk energy of their earlier recordings is totally sanded down again – “Down With The Shine” and the album on a whole feel like a bit of a declaration from The Avett Brothers. While they’re not afraid to experiment in the studio and embrace a bigger, more accessible sound, they will always stay true to their core of strong lyrics and brotherly harmonies rather than to the musical trends of the day.

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