We are covering three different topics in our Avett Brothers Primer series here in suziebeezieland. :) We have already discussed Correct Identification of Scott and Seth. Here is our second topic:
A Basic Working Knowledge of their Body of Work Thus Far :)
Listening to one Avett Brothers song and trying to decide what their sound is like from that one song is probably like trying to decide what weather is like based on one season, or what your Hallowe'en candy haul is like based on one piece, or what zoos are like based on one monkey.
You could listen to the four songs I've chosen from their first four albums below, for example, and feel pretty certain that you're firmly in bluegrass territory, but then you'll hit Mignonette and go "Oh, hold on. Wait. What was that?"
So here is a little chronological survey of their music so far, and a few thoughts on some of the songs.
I've included bits of some critical reviews so you can see the critics warm up to them as their sound matures -- although I love Paste, because they warmed up to the Avetts right away and have always loved them.
They wrote in 2006:
[The Avett Brothers'] unique sound—a blend of punk- and hard-rock intensity, old-time country, folk and blues, calypso, top-notch songwriting and ragged-but-true harmonies, all delivered with Johnny Cash sincerity and bolstered by an unequivocal work ethic and madman live show—is finally gaining an audience. It seems every time the Avetts play, crowds buzz. Next time they’re in town, the audience doubles, and everyone suddenly knows all the lyrics.
So by the time Rolling Stone got around to naming them their "Artist to Watch" of 2009, the already sizeable fan base (and the entire state of North Carolina) just rolled their eyes and said "well, duh." (Rolling Stone hasn't been on the edge for a long time now, I don't think -- they can't compete with real-time buzz on the Internet, and it's this grass-roots, word-of-mouth enthusiasm on blogs and social networks that have done such a great job of spreading Avett Fever.
Not everybody loves them: Stephen Deusner at Pitchfork, for example, seems pretty comfortably hunkered down in his determination to be critical of the Avett Brothers' cheerfulness, critical of their "messiness," and then (what?) critical of Rick Rubin for polishing them up a bit and making them less messy on I And Love And You.
At least he's consistent.
But when people do like the Avett Brothers, they rave.
When critics or fans start gushing about the Avett Brothers, at some point they praise their honesty. It's a defining characteristic of their songs: they sing about real stuff that has happened to them, and what it made them think and how it made them feel. They don't keep you at arm's length to preserve their own coolness. Take the crushed bewilderment, for instance, in the first stanza of Pretty Girl from Cedar Lane:
I had a moment, when I thought I might be wrong
But Ashley how could it be
I waited on the rooftop, all night long
But you weren't coming for me
And now I'm sitting here like a mixed up little kid
You said you wanted me but you never did
If I had to tell you why I like them so much, I would include in my animated and enthusiastic ten-hour speech that it's this wearing-their-hearts-on-their-sleeves that is appealing, but only because they're intelligent enough not to use cliches when they're talking about these hearts, so it never dissolves into empty, manipulative sentimentality. You know they bounced back and moved onto Pretty-Girl-from-Somewhere-Else.
And they whoop and holler and break banjo strings all over the place, so their sincerity never wanders into the realm of so-earnest-as-to-seem-girly. :)
The Avett Brothers (EP) (January 1, 2000)
This is a six-song, out-of-print EP, and a chance to hear some raw, unadulterated Avett Brothers. They're out-of-tune and there really aren't any production values :) but you can see the bedrock they'll build on later: beautiful harmony and some good instincts about songwriting and storytelling.
I find Let Myself Live somewhat painful to listen to, although I know some hard-core fans who swear it's their favorite, because it's so pure and raw. I myself am okay with less purity but better sound later on in their career. :) Although I don't know ... the more I listen to it, the more it grows on me.
Live at the Double Door Inn (January 1, 2002)
Here is a nice intro to the boys' harmony (although this contains the highly nasal, traditional bluegrass version of harmony, which I can only take a small amount of), banjo playing, and "Pretty Girl from" series of songs.
Country Was (January 1, 2002)
When I tried to get Country Was a couple years ago, it was out of print and unavailable, and I finally found it floating around randomly on the Internet. Once it was available on iTunes I went back and bought it properly :) and I see it's also available on Amazon.
November Blue is my favorite Avett Brothers song (specifically the Country Was version), and probably always will be. I recognize with my head that their later work is better, but my heart leaps around at this song, probably because there is nothing to compete with their beautiful harmony or the jagged edge to their voices. The Avett Brothers have often remarked that their musicianship needs work, but I have never enjoyed anything artistic if it is too polished. I like things kind of rustic, where you can see the mark of the maker. So this song really works for me. :) I've hooked you up with the video of this a few times before.
A Carolina Jubilee (August 19, 2003)
Listen to the traditional banjo work and close harmonies in Pretty Girl from Annapolis, and remember this sound when we get down to Talk on Indolence. Some traditional bluegrass folks got their feathers pretty ruffled when the Avetts won "Duo/Group of the Year" in 2007. But the next year Alison Krauss and Robert Plant won it for "Raising Sand," and that wasn't traditional, either, so I guess the crabby folks needed to just get over it, because the times, they are a changin'.
Mignonette (July 27, 2004)
When you talk to people who have been listening to the Avett Brothers for a long time, they'll usually start talking to you about Mignonette. They'll look off to the distance, somewhere over your shoulder, and get a little misty. Mignonette seems to be where a lot of folks first heard them and got emotionally attached. :)
The usual acoustic instruments are applied here (banjo, git-fiddle, string bass, cello, etc.) but they’re used to their maximum effectiveness beneath unforgettable melodies and a raw, energetic production the best rock records would envy (the amplification of the vocals alone can make your hair stand on end). (Paste Magazine)
"Mignonette," the follow-up to last year's acclaimed "A Carolina Jubilee," takes it name from an English yacht that sank in a storm off the coast of Africa in 1884. Cannibalistic seamen and a too-honest-for-his-own-good captain go along with the story, which has inspired the Avett Brothers to carry the "overall theme of truth" throughout the album. With or without that little bit of background information, listen to "Mignonette" and you'll hear the band's gift for emotionally honest songs that are often humorous and touching at the same time. (Country Standard Time)
Lazy men find an easy way
Easy work for easy pay
I’m not listening; there ain’t no such a thing as that
I could stand right underneath the window of your room
Throwing rocks -- I've done it before
And I would love to find a reason to dazzle you with lies
But I don't have the energy no more
Live, Volume 2 (May 17, 2005)
I Killed Sally's Lover was originally released on A Carolina Jubilee, but I like this live version better. It's a good example of the boys when they're raucous, which is what everyone loves in concert so much. The song seems rooted in old wild-and-wooly country music -- we feel like the protagonist is singing to us from the mid-1800s (except for the mention of a vehicle) -- so the boys get away with what they're actually singing, which is pretty ... wild-and-wooly. :) You're obviously sitting in a saloon surrounded by cowboys and outlaws as you listen.
Four Thieves Gone: The Robinsville Sessions (February 6, 2006)
Four Thieves Gone is sure to please the adventurous music fan looking for something new under the sun -- and don't let those banjos and acoustic guitars fool ya … this is much more than just another pickin' party. This is organic, honest, powerful, and at times, graceful music that is filled with punk growlings and soaring harmonies, and enough really catchy, melody-driven pop tunes to keep you coming back time and time again. (Americana Roots)
You can just imagine what Talk on Indolence did to the people who bought this album after hearing that the Avett Brothers were "a bluegrass band with a lot of banjo." Poor things. :)
And I gave to you my ugly brown coat
You made it pretty when you put it on
The Gleam (EP) (September 19, 2006)
If I could go back
That's the first thing I would do
I swear that I would
Do my best to follow through
Come up with a master plan
A homerun hit, a winning stand
(If It's the Beaches is the song that makes girls who have been tolerating their boyfriends' enthusiastic love of the Avett Brothers decide that they, themselves, love the Avett Brothers.)
Emotionalism (May 15, 2007)
The Avett Brothers don’t create music for the “I’m late to work. I’m gonna grab a Nutragrain bar” crowd. They make music for the few people who still make oatmeal in the morning and prefer open windows to noisy air conditioners. None of those old-fashioned things describe me. But after a few more months with Emotionalism, they might. (Absolutepunk.net)
The Avett Brothers—still unjaded after half a decade in the music business—do their best to combat modern-day hipster detachment and pseudo-coolness with Emotionalism’s simple, poetic story-songs and bittersweet, introspective laments. The album—down to the title itself—is a celebration of unselfconscious passion. (Paste Magazine)
Theoretically it should be a complete mess, but in reality, you’ll be hard pressed to hear something so joyful and unique all year ... (Stylus)
I never get tired of their close harmony. :)
Die Die Die is the song that made me think "The Beatles, but with banjos." :)
The Second Gleam (July 22, 2007)
The Second Gleam is my favorite Avett Brothers album. I didn't discover them until the summer of 2008, so this (and Emotionalism) is where I came in ... this is what I spent the first few months listening to over and over and digesting before I then went back and gobbled up everything they'd ever sung.
The guys leave the band out in this EP and focus on their vocals, and you can hear how much their melodies and harmonies have grown since we listened to Let Myself Live earlier. :)
The Avett Brothers have slowly carved out their own unique place in the music world; not quite folk, not quite country, not quite bluegrass or rock, it is that ability to slither through those labels that gives their music its power. Without being boxed in and mislabeled, the focus can fully rest on the deep introspective lyrics the Brothers craft, and the stories they sing and relate. The Second Gleam is packed with these stories ... (Honest Tune)
I remember crying over you
And I don't mean like a couple of tears and then I'm blue
I’m talkin’ about collapsing and screaming at the moon
Always remember there was nothing worth sharing
Like the love that let us share our name
I and Love and You (September 29, 2009)
This was the Avetts' major record label debut. It came out last fall, and was produced by Rick Rubins. Suddenly, people were all a-flutter. The Avett Brothers were a Starbucks pick-of-the-week, and friends who had ignored you for years when you raved about them came to tell you about this awesome new band they'd found called The Avett Brothers. :) For me, the best review (among many, many raving reviews) about this album is Paste's, who loved them all along.
It’s hard to let go. Of a girlfriend. Of an old hound dog. Of a tattered pair of jeans. And maybe most gut-wrenchingly of all, it’s hard to let go of your favorite heretofore unheralded band. ... This is the plight of the Avett Brothers fan: He must keep a stiff upper lip as his heroes trek off into the great unknown mainstream. ... Having conquered every Saturday night music hall and holler between Asheville and Portland, they have made a record that is not just a stab at the mainstream—it’s a harpoon through its sternum ... The Avetts could’ve made some kind of caterwauling record full of flaming banjoes, hootenannies, and throaty hollers that encapsulates their reputation-making live show. In fact, that would’ve been a ... sensible move as far as introductions go. Howdy, we’re the Avett Brothers. We’re gonna hillbilly-rock you like you’ve never been hillbilly-rocked before. Instead they’ve constructed something beautiful. An album that’s not merely loaded with ballads, it’s almost wall-to-wall epic ballads. Pianos trickle before the storm, strings ball up their fists, swells and waves of sound wash over the Avetts’ sorghum-sweet harmonies. And this is just in the first song, a goose-bump engorging title-track that could by itself inspire a legion of new fans ... Their lyrics are tough yet vulnerable, insightful yet homespun, manly yet emotional. The kind of thing that makes the girls giddy and the boys envious. (Paste Magazine)
Live Volume 3 (October 5, 2010)
Live Volume 3 just came out yesterday, and we will talk about it in our final installment of An Avett Brothers Primer. :) Stay tuned!