The Avett Brothers
have, over the past several years, been screaming and kicking (a kick drum) from the margins of contemporary singer-songwriter obscurity to the steady flow of the mainstream. The Carpenter
is yet another solid effort to solidify their place in the warm water of that river. Produced again by Rick Rubin, the disc builds a soundscape which marries their banjo-pickin' Carolina upbringing with the grit of their time in Brooklyn and the comfort of coming back home. Indeed, the disc was recorded in Asheville's storied Echo Mountain studio and, as such, it carries with it a certain undeniable element of mountain charm.
Trendsetters Redirecting Trends
Any lover of contemporary folk music, bluegrass, the things rootsy music can do when untethered from tradition and let to fly atop its own flagpole - any lover of the mountains and the trees and the small towns of Applachia - can't discredit the remarkable appeal of a pair of brothers earnestly singing the crap out of their most difficult emotions. And, indeed, there are few mainstream acts more genuinely earnest and emotionally convincing than the Avett Brothers. Where nouveau-folk outfits pour out of farflung cities and European hubs, echoing the Avetts' homespun mastery of emotional storytelling, all those bands start to look like mere biters when held up to the guys who breathed new life into that style of music in the first place. Along with Old Crow Medicine Show
(who also released a heck of an album
this year), the Avett Brothers picked up that torch years ago and have become so good at carrying it, other similar bands can only stretch for their shadow.
Down with the Shine
All that said, The Carpenter
is not a nod to the kind of music they started out making - by any stretch of the imagination. Hearing this disc, it makes some sense that the brothers recently appeared in a series of Gap advertisements. They've crossed a line into mainstream palatability which is a rare line to cross while still holding onto your own truths. Generally, when folksingers go that route, they do so in an effort to distance themselves from something - whether it's political or monetary or simply a yearning for a larger fanbase. But, while the Avetts's new album has a certain aesthetic which makes strange sense in a more commercial context, they seem to have crossed that line with their integrity intact.
When the horns come in on "Down with the Shine" (purchase/download), it's not because horns are the new thing the kids are doing next to banjos these days. It's because the song - and its sentiment - at that very moment, can only be augmented by those long tone harmonies and that slightly crackling trumpet. That the metal trumpet cracks at the right moment, only makes the story of the song resonate harder. After all, this is a song about getting taken for a ride, about getting taken, about resisting the shine no matter its glisten. See what I mean.
The Carpenter's Toolkit
In a way, this disc functions like a toolkit with the opening track ("The Once and Future Carpenter
") unveiling a collection of thoughts, ideas, intentions, and mistakes, only to be closed back up by an arresting and dreamy tune called "Life." "Carpenter" is a life story, setting the stage for a collection of life stories, declaring with no small amount of foreshadowing: "If I live the life I'm given, I won't be scared to die." It's a folk song, driven by guitar and banjo. It's what they came from, but looked back upon with fondness.
The disc proceeds and closes up with a natural conclusion. That "Life" is so dreamy and unexpected (those strange backing harmonies, those sudden angelic voices, the meandering and swelling melody that just falls off at the end) makes perfect sense considering the album's opening declaration. They bring it to catharsis with the lesson that they've learned: "We're not of this world for long," they sing. "Faith and promise keep me honest / when starvation falls upon us." Of course it's a provocative conclusion, considering we all know these guys are young and only just getting started. Then again, if this is them only just getting started, stand back.