The Avett Brothers are a band that exude positivity. They have an unmistakable bounce in their step, as if they can barely contain their joy at being able to make music for a living.
And a nice living at that. Over the last year or so, the Avett Brothers have managed to become genuinely mainstream, with their seventh full-length album The Carpenter (released September 11th) debuting at number four on the charts after the band made a number of appearances on TV, including the Grammy Awards. Along with the phenomenally successful band Mumford & Sons, the Avetts are at the vanguard of an intriguing resurgence in acoustic folk rock driven by reflective lyrics that possess a subtle Christian underpinning.
The Carpenter begins with “The Once and Future Carpenter,” a life-affirming tune that exemplifies the Avett’s signature sound: straightforward folk rock, with vocals and acoustic guitars at the forefront. The song’s message is immediately engaging, relating the reflections of the universal drifter looking for contentment. Still, a sense of trust is what sticks out, particularly in the last line of the chorus: “If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die.”
The next two tracks “Live and Die” and “Winter In My Heart” solidify an excellent opening trio of songs to start the album. “Live and Die” is The Carpenter‘s lead single, and for good reason. An ode to romantic longing, the song incorporates banjo, acoustic guitar, fiddle, a strong, swinging drum beat and instantly memorable vocal melodies, complete with an awesome banjo solo midway through the track. “Winter In My Heart” follows, signaling a dramatic mood swing. Lilting and mournful, the song wonderfully captures the melancholy that is an inevitable part of life. “It must be winter in my heart / There’s nothing warm in there at all.” What’s appealing about a song like this is that there’s no attempt to explain away or justify the despondency. “The air in there is frigid cold / I don’t know what the reasons are.” There’s a subtle sense of peace in these lines, a faith that in time, this too shall pass.
Unfortunately, The Carpenter starts getting inconsistent beginning with the fourth track “Pretty Girl from Michigan.” It’s an energetic and appealing song, but feel’s slightly forced, with fuzzed electric guitars and a wailing chorus with unimaginative lyrics about being lovelorn. Elsewhere, “I Never Knew You” feels cutesy, like the Avett’s are trying too hard to be funny. (One bright spot is the sixth track “February Seven,” an astute reflection on hardship and renewal.) The album’s back end, including songs like “Down With the Shine” and “A Father’s First Spring” have some nice lyrical moments, but the music is unmemorable and slow, lacking hooks and originality. Then there’s the head-scratching 11th track “Paul Newman vs. the Demons.” It’s a full-blown hard rock song, complete with distorted guitars and feedback, pounding drums and howling vocals. It sounds strangely familiar to an Incubus song from the 90’s, far out of the Avett’s element.
It’s clear that with The Carpenter, the Avett Brothers tried to stretch themselves out and experiment with their sound a bit. For a folk band that is beginning to hit the big time, this is perfectly understandable. The fear of being pigeonholed into a narrow rock genre is something that most bands struggle with at some point in their career. But when a band strays from their true nature, the strain is plain to see. The soul of the Avett Brothers lies in their ability to craft earnest, melodic, straightforward yet modern folk rock, with an uncanny feeling of honesty and humility. As the first three songs on The Carpenter demonstrate, there’s no need to change the recipe when the food is this delicious.