Avett Brothers’ ‘Carpenter’ builds on initial success

The Avett Brothers’ latest album moves beyond the folk band’s twangy sound. Photo via pitchfork.com.

The Avett Brothers’ new album “The Carpenter” would make a good companion on a long hike. It is a record that elicits images of nature, is woven with moments of quiet introspection and has enough high-energy songs to keep you walking.

“The Carpenter,” released Sept. 11, is the band’s second album under the direction of legendary producer Rick Rubin, known for working with acts as diverse as Adele, the Dixie Chicks and Run-DMC. Rubin’s first collaboration with the Avett Brothers was their last album and breakout success “I and Love and You.”  After the 2009 release of the album, the band went from being a low-key bluegrass act to performing with Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons at the Grammys. Scott and Seth Avett are now even appearing in a Gap commercial, showing off their scruffy good looks in skinny cords while marking how far into the mainstream they have come.

Rubin’s influence may account for the new record sounding more tightly produced and pop-friendly than past Avett efforts. Though this may cause some to miss the raw energy of the band’s live performances, the Avett Brothers manage to create sincere moments through the polish. The tracks are sweetly sung, beautifully arranged and filled with a relatable poignancy, reminding fans why they liked the band in the first place. 

“The Carpenter” maneuvers between lighter songs about pretty girls and break-ups to authentic reflections on death, loss and a search for meaning. Though some lyrics risk becoming twee, the Avett Brothers have a way of delivering lines to narrowly escape an eye-roll.

The song that inches closest to over-sentimentality is “Winter In My Heart.” With lines like “The calendar says July Fourth, but it’s still winter in my heart,”  it may be too much for people with a low schmaltz tolerance. But for most, the track is saved by the beauty of its ethereal musical saw and heart-wrenching string arrangements. Despite a feel of mushy dejection, it’s a tune that stays with you.

Far from this mournful number, the lighter songs on the album are real toe-tappers. “Pretty Girl from Michigan” (yet another addition to the Avetts’ “Pretty Girl from (Blank)” series) and “I Never Knew You” have the plodding beats and doo-wop flair of a bluegrassy Buddy Holly song. The Avetts bring the banjo with upbeat standout tracks “Live and Die,” the catchy and joyful first single, and “Down With The Shine,” a sweeping and pleasant folk tune.

But with this record, the Avetts also bring material that veers significantly from their pegged role as a banjo-infused roots act. The most notable outlier on “The Carpenter” is the arresting “Paul Newman Vs. The Demons.” It starts with the feedback and crunchy guitars of alternative rock. The Avetts suddenly channel bands like Muse, and it just doesn’t work for them. While the intensity of the guitars and the rough vocals may add some darker shades to balance the album’s lighter songs, this is not where the Avett Brothers shine.

Instead, the band finds its strength in songs that bridge the space between the bouncy jaunts and these overly heavy sounds. The album’s best songs often linger on serious topics and use the Avett Brothers’ ability to convey emotion through honest and straightforward lyrics over a beautiful melody.

The Avett Brothers’ powerful opener, “The Once and Future Carpenter,” lingers on mortality and a search for direction, which are both common themes throughout the album. The song speaks of a relatable struggle: the fear of ending life without accomplishing anything that lasts. It tells of feeling lost and searching for purpose, but there remains a strand of hope in the song with the repeated line,“If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die.”

Another of the album’s strongest songs, “February Seven,” continues this sentiment. It starts with the line, “I went on the search for something true, I was almost there when I saw you” and ends with a bright outlook in a repetition of “I’m rested and I’m ready to begin.” The line repeats like a mantra with an undeniable fullness and optimism.

“The Carpenter” has many of these moments, when songs are full of both doubt and reassurance. The lyrics often question the meaning and direction of a life, then define what is worth living for. The Avett Brothers have managed to make this album personal and self-reflective, lingering on love and family. They remind us all of the universal “search for something true,” then tell us where to look: the people you love.

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