Rating: 15 "High Fives" out of Your Mom
There's something special to behold when families make music together. The Carters, the Whites, the Stanley Brothers....even the Danielson Famile. There's something to be said about the bonds between musical families when the book is finally written on the Rise and Fall of New World Folk and Americana Music. (Patent pending.)
Two of the Avett Brothers are actually brothers, so you know right away that their act is part of that sacred musical tradition in the South known as the Family Band. The boys share vocals while handling separate guitar and banjo duties, and years of playing and singing together bring a confluence and immediacy that isn't often found in popular music these days. Imagine, if you will, that Tweedy and Farrar had stuck it out through the 90s and you might get an idea of the mutual musical reciprocity that goes on between these siblings. There's a bass player, too, but he has a different last name so I don't suppose he counts.
The Avett Brothers play music rooted in old-timey folk and bluegrass, but do so clearly aware of the fact that we live in a rock'n'roll, post-punk society. That's not to say they attempt to meld the two traditions ala Uncle Tupelo or Defiance, Ohio. This is their take on traditional American music, coming from two boys who happened to play in rock bands before they wizened up and set themselves on the straight and narrow. There's no agenda here. No one's trying to create new musical genres from scratch. It's just two brothers and buddy playing guitar, banjo and upright bass. And it's pretty damn good.
Emotionalism, the new album from the Brothers Avett sees them shed bits of their post-punk skin, only to replace it with tighter harmonies, folk-easy singable melodies, and yes, the occasional string section. So whether or not you find these things appealing will decide just how exactly you'll respond to their latest offering. At times, dipping their toes in the river of the great, heaving pop-center does them some good. "Salina" bounces between dive-bar, piano ballad to bouncy, toe-tapping masterpiece, then finishes with what (I'm guessing) was supposed to be a poignant orchestral tribute to homesickness. It almost works, but not quite.
The songs are tighter, to be sure, but the Avetts lose some of the Old Weird America flavor from their previous albums in their attempt to be SERIOUS PERFORMERS. Gone are the screams and yelps from old songs like "Colorshow" or "Gimmeakiss." That being said, Emotionalism isn't a complete about face by any means. It's just an intentional focusing on the more traditional sounds of the band's prior recordings. Album opener "Die Die Die" is a great guitar/banjo ditty with some fantastic, high-register harmony vocals, but you can't help hoping for a yelp or a holler or something to really liven the place up. Instead, we get a break with a series of "Doo-doo-doos" that wouldn't sound out of place on a Buddy Holly or New Pornographers ballad. "Die Die Die" is followed by a sweeter, quieter version of itself called "Shame." Here's where the Brothers really go for the saccharine-jugular, singing Shame, boatloads of shame, day after day, more of the same. The only thing that keeps it from becoming a parody of itself is how honestly pretty the song really is.
The album really gets going by track three, with "Paranoia in Bb," an tack-piano driven ode to mental illness. If you caught the boys on Conan a couple of weeks ago (or found the video on YouTube), you caught a glimpse of the potential energy this band possesses. The studio version is a little more relaxed, which only seems to heighten the confused tension behind the message of the song. Is it about losing sanity? Is it about falling in love? Is there any difference? The least that can be said about the opening three tracks is that the Avetts haven't lost their sense of humor, leading off with songs about Death, Shame and Paranoia. Ah, the South rises again.
The rest of the album bounces between much of the same. There are same great songs here: The buoyant 50s-rock by way of Eleanor Rigby strings inspired "Will You Return?" The traditional bluegrass meets some faux-Caribbean/Mexicali-madness of "Pretty Girl from San Diego." And the aforementioned "Salina," a Billy Joel/Graham Parsons jukebox mashup.
But overall, while these brothers are great musicians, their almost total devotion to releasing a "pretty record" nearly brings down the whole project. "Living of Love" is a perfect example. It's gorgeous. But the boys don't have the vocals to quite match it's majesty. As a Patty Griffin/Emmylou Harris duet it might work. But the Avetts lose a piece of what really makes them great by focusing on their Nashville influences. They almost pull it off in the finals few bars, with those towering, chill-inducing harmonies, but fall just short. But hey, at least they go out with a bang.
Well, almost. Second-to-last track "Go to Sleep" ought to have closed out this album. It's lazy guitar strum, laid back harmonica and full-family vocal vibe would have been the perfect finishing note for this album. Unfortunately it's not. Instead, we're subjected to one more "quiet" song, which means one more "pretty" song, which makes four of five "pretty" songs too many.
What the Avetts fail to realize (maybe) is that "Go To Sleep", with it's banjo and fiddle and trombone (?) is pretty. I mean, it's goddamn pretty. It's the kind of pretty Ryan Adams hasn't hit since Heartbreaker. Instead, we close with the kind of pretty Ryan Adams still has in him (in spades). It's enough to make you want to grab the Avett Brothers by the short hairs and beg them to smash their guitars or turn up their amps a little more often. You guys rock so well, why would you want to write Whiskeytown B-Sides!
But I digress. Taken on its own, Emotionalism is a powerfully good rock record. But knowing the history and energy of this band, it doesn't quite meet the mark the Avett Brothers have set for themselves on their back-catalog. Oh well. At least it's more entertaining than Sky Blue Sky. In fact, while I'm waking the Avetts from the "pretty" stupor, someone else give Jeff Tweedy a swift kick to the backside, too. Americana's too big to be defined by its syrupy ballads. True American music has so much more to offer. And the Avetts know it.
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