Are the Avett Brothers the Next Big Thing? They certainly bring formidable weapons to the sweepstakes. The Avetts, guitarist Seth and banjoist Scott, are two sweet-singing, super-handsome bros who harmonize on idiosyncratic, soulful folk songs about love and family and connection, the kinds of tunes that inspire lots of linked arms and swaying heads from their fiercely-devoted fans. Signs at Avett Brothers shows often read “Avett Nation”, which feels accurate enough when the crowds of plaid-clad grad students dig deep and sing along in ecstatic unison. The North Carolina band, rounded out by bassist Bob Crawford and touring cellist Joe Kwon, have built up quite a head of steam lately, releasing the well-received Emotionalism in 2007 and the Gleam II EP last year, which marked the boys’ strongest songs yet (and some sweet beards — Seth was looking pretty Pennsylvania Dutch there for awhile). It’s no wonder that the Avetts caught the attention of Rick Rubin, who signed the band to his Columbia/American imprint and produced their new major-label debut, I and Love and You.
The results? Superb. I and Love and You is the Avetts’ best record yet, as Rubin has gotten hold of the Brothers at the right time, when they are peaking as songwriters and morphing into a different band, one that is realizing the limitations of their previous stage arrangement. For years, the Avett Brothers were a ramshackle trio, with Scott on banjo and kickdrum and Seth on guitar and hi-hat. The band made an impressive racket in this formation, performing blast-furnace versions of their mountain-punk rave-ups, but often the boys’ ardent vocals threatened to overwhelm the relatively thin instrumentation, and it became clear that the band needed to spread out sonically.
The band’s evolution on I and Love and You is invested heavily in the piano, around which nearly every song on the new record is based. Scott and Seth take turns on the keys, but it’s the almost-complete absence of Scott’s banjo that is most noticeable here and that long-time fans find most lamentable. The Avetts throw in a few nods to their raucous stage shows — and, without a doubt, they’re a band best experienced live — with a snatch of banjo here and a full-throated scream from Seth there, but gone is the ragged, haphazard feel of their early work and the half-joking levity of tunes like “Distraction #47” from Four Thieves Gone. Still, while some feel that the rough edges are part of the band’s appeal, the new record makes an assured attempt at the big time by playing things straight.
Rubin will, of course, get plenty of credit (or blame) for the group’s reboot, and the record does indeed contain his footprint, namely his sense of restraint. The producer has been a national treasure in getting artists to get back to basics, as on his vaunted series of records with Johnny Cash and his recent acoustic comeback albums for Neil Diamond. So while these songs are embellished here with some lush orchestration at times, Rubin has cleaned up the tin-can production of the Avetts’ previous releases and has encouraged the Avetts to streamline the songs. The result is a furthering of the smooth, mature songwriting of gems like “Murder in the City” and “Bella Donna” from Gleam II.
I and Love and You starts off with the title cut and, as the lead single and the centerpiece of live shows over the summer, it’s a song they’re obviously proud of and for good reason — it’s stellar. The song is an ambrosial slice of heartland balladry, and with its piano intro, vocal harmonies, and the “You don’t know the shape I’m in” refrain, it feels like the ghost of Richard Manuel is overlooking the proceedings. The boys make a point of splitting vocal duties, with Scott on the first verse and Seth on the second, but it’s when they sing together that they maximize their strengths. The song appears to be about the healing balm of Brooklyn, but the universality that these guys are so good at capturing comes down to those three words that are hard to say.
The banjo makes a cameo on the second song, “January Wedding”, Seth’s sweet-as-pie Appalachian-style ballad about the virtues of true love, name-dropping Audrey Hepburn, and getting hitched in winter. The Avetts are quirky like that. There’s joy in the repetition of the traditional folk melody, but the boys dig deeper with “Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise”, with Scott singing cryptic lines like “there’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light”, which may be tough to explicate but contain the kind of earnest soul-searching that has come to define their lyrics. The song has an epic feel, full of close harmonies, a tasteful organ punch, and Kwon’s tender cello countermelody atop Scott’s piano lines.
The Brothers finally get a little kooky on “And It Spread”. It’s a typical love story — you know, girl leaves, guy gets suicidal, girl comes back. It’s an acoustic strummer that contains some of the loveliest singing on the record from Seth although in the middle his vocals get a bit overbearing amid gunfire snare drums. It takes awhile to tell these guys apart, by the way. Scott sings with more unadorned directness and has a twangier drawl; Seth has a softer touch in general but has a penchant for screamy asides. He gets that chance on “The Perfect Space”, maybe the record’s most ambitious song, one that combines the elements that make the Avetts great. It starts with gentle piano and cello with Scott again taking up the topics like companionship and redemption — lines like “I wanna have friends that love me for the man that I’ve become not the man that I was”, are the kind that fans get teary-eyed about at their shows. The song takes a hard left as Seth takes over and gets briefly manic over a jaunty piano-pop middle section before the song resolves to a big luscious chorus backed by strings and anthemic drums. Most provocative line: “I wanna have pride like my mother has / And not the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.” Discuss.
The boys keep it in chilled-out mode the majority of the time on this record. “Ten Thousand Words” is a timeless bit of ’70s country rock, with Houses of the Holy guitars and Loggins and Messina vocals, that possesses Seth’s most delicate and adroit guitar playing on the album. “Ill With Want” is yet another piano ballad, this one a timely portrait of greed, “Tin Man” is a Jayhawks-ish alt-country tune about missing the feeling of feelings, and “Laundry Room”, a song they’ve been playing live for a year or so, was once banjo-driven, but now is sung over fingerpicked acoustic guitar and piano, a big improvement that features a timelessly-exquisite arrangement and careful playing. The brothers echo each others’ lines to fine effect and throw in a true bluegrass coda at the end with fiddle and Scott’s clawhammer banjo.
The band rocks out just twice. “Kick Drum Heart” could have been a hit back in the early ’80s, with its Casio beat and catchy, rollicking melody and the cute kickdrum thumps that punctuate the chorus. “Slight Figure of Speech” is even more fun, a surfy pop ditty from rock’s golden era, complete with handclaps and vocal aaahs and a supersonic rappy interlude. The album’s final tune, “Incomplete and Insecure”, repeats the line “I haven’t finished a thing since I started my life / I don’t feel much like starting now.” It’s a line full of irony because, while the Avett Brothers have had a productive run going on a decade, I and Love and You‘s new elegant musical direction and very strong set of new songs indicate that they are band that is indeed just getting revved up. They might remain too folk-fringe-y to be pop’s Next Big Thing, but the Avetts’ latest fully delivers on this band’s considerable potential.