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Album Review: The Avett Brothers - The Carpenter

Album Review:  The Avett Brothers - The Carpenter
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The Avett Brothers
The Carpenter

In retrospect, it’s quite impressive to see what The Avett Brothers have managed to accomplish in only a decade’s worth of work. For the better part of the new millenium, the band has been steadily pumping out a sadly anachronistic brand of music that seemed destined to keep them on the fringes of popularity. But, through the combination of their dogged work ethic, increasingly solid albums, and a neverending tour schedule has taken the guys from the bluegrass circuit to a prime slot at this past year’s Bonnaroo. The band’s ascent to the top of the pile is well-earned. Had I not had access to not only one but two of their shows earlier in the year, I can honestly say I would not be writing this now. The band’s live show is something of a small miracle - it’s simultaneously intimate and inclusive of everyone, joyful and heartbreaking, and most of all, it’s able to make a believer out of just about anyone. Seeing a couple of dreamboat brothers sing wistful songs over Americana does not sound like what I would usually love in a live show, but I’ll be goddamned if The Avett Brothers didn’t completely win me over with their live shows.

It’s because of these live shows, however, that The Carpenter has proven to be a disappointment. At those shows, I saw a band that was on the cusp of super-stardom. I saw a perfectly oiled group that had a ravenous fanbase and, most importantly, a seemingly killer set of songs waiting to be sprung on an unsuspecting public. “The Once and Future Carpenter”, “Down with the Shine”, and the massive first single “Live and Die” all made appearances at least once, and they did more than any promotional materials could to build anticipation for the new album. But even a cursory listen to The Carpenter will make immediately obvious the most damning flaw of the album - the energy and personality just aren’t there. The spark that makes the band so immensely likeable in a live setting is all but gone. Some of the blame should certainly be aimed at uber-producer Rick Rubin, but this isn’t the band’s first tango with the bearded impresario. I and Love and You may not have had the punch of Emotionalism, but it certainly still managed to bring all the dramatic give-and-take of the band’s weepiest material. No, the blame falls squarely on the band themselves for a lazy approach to something that should come as second nature after this amount of time.

I don’t mean to give the impression that The Carpenter is an abject horror of Lovecraftian proportions - far from it. Everything that gave the band their specific flavor shows up at one point or another. The vocal harmonies are as beautiful as they’ve ever been, melodies like those on “The Once and Future Carpenter” and especially on “Live and Die” will surely live in fans’ minds as much as “January Wedding”, and there’s even a few incredibly touching moments scattered throughout a few songs like “A Father’s First Spring”. When the band focuses on the massive stakes of life and death, the results can be striking - “If I live the life I’m given / I won’t be scared to die” strikes me as an instant classic line that will be roping in new fans for ages to come. However, for every poignant moment the band brings to the table, there’s a half-assed idea that nearly sends the entire album into the ditch.

Two egregious examples of songs preventing any sense of cohesion pop immediately into mind: “Winter in my Heart” and “Paul Newman Vs. the Demons”. The former disrupts the mood set by “The Once and Future Carpenter” and the catchy “Live and Die” with a painful, one-note metaphor about the titular cardiac season laid over a cloying, maudlin bed of music that goes absolutely nowhere. It hits one note, and refuses to move. Joe Kwon’s cello makes itself known early on in the album, but here, it’s entry is a by-the-books “Make ‘em cry, dammit!” moment. Later on, “Paul Newman Vs. the Demons” is a head-shaking attempt at branching out by the inclusion of electric guitars and a more rockin’ tone. In an interview shortly before the album’s release, Scott Avett made reference to the band being “Loud”, and this is their attempt at proving they can rock. They cannot. True rock and roll requires at least a speck of danger, and there’s not even a modicum to be seen. Instead, the track comes off as a wildly lame attempt to liven up a sound that needed nothing of the sort. It’s moments like this where the band comes off as disingenuous, and that’s as much of a problem as the band has ever faced.

The Carpenter isn’t terrible, but it is a prime example of a band faltering in the face of success. For every bit of the band’s successful takes on bluegrass and Americana, there’s some sort of idiotic idea meant to placate people who don’t listen to anything that they can’t easily find. If it isn’t some sort of misplaced electric guitar coming out of nowhere, it’s a bland metaphor that wouldn’t have felt in place in their first album, let alone one twelve years down the road. But, still, it’s very difficult to truly hate The Avett Brothers. Even though there’s a lot about this album that I dislike, it’s almost impossible to turn away when the band is clicking. There’s a few moments where the band brings back memories of Emotionalism and earlier, but they mostly exist just to frustrate when compared to the lesser moments. The Carpenter will most likely prove to be The Avett’s version of The Black Keys’ El Camino. It’s an attempt at a crowd pleaser that will almost certainly propel the band to new heights, but it’s a shadow of what came before.

Grade: C

Track Listing:

1. The Once and Future Carpenter
2. Live and Die
3. Winter in My Heart
4. Pretty Girl From Michigan
5. I Never Knew You
6. February Seven
7. Through My Prayers
8. Down with the Shine
9. A Father’s First Spring
10. Geraldine
11. Paul Newman vs. the Demons
12. Life
Submitted by Jeremy

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