The Avett Brothers' second major label album subtly expands their sonic palette while they continue to write strong songs that are alternately introspective and raucous.
With The Carpenter, the Avett Brothers and producer Rick Rubin have finished the job of sanding down the band's rough edges. That process began back on 2009's I and Love and You, the Avetts' commercial breakthrough, major label debut, and first with Rubin. Let me be clear here. This is by no means an indictment of the album, because The Carpenter is strong from top to bottom. Still, the Avett Brothers started as a trio with acoustic guitar, bass, and banjo, plus Seth Avett on foot pedal hi-hate and Scott Avett on kick drum. When they wanted to get loud, they pretty much had to shout at the top of their voices and flail away on their instruments. What they've gained in working with Rubin is access to a larger sonic toolkit. Shouting is no longer their only option for getting louder, so The Carpenter features very little of Scott and Seth yelling into the microphone.
While there's an undeniable appeal to classic Avett shout-songs like "Talk On Indolence" and "Colorshow", it was hardly the band's only strength. Scott and Seth are both excellent singers who have grown as songwriters throughout their career. If anything, I and Love and You demonstrated that the band was adaptable, using the piano to much greater effect than they'd tried previously. Many of the band's best moments have been quieter ones, and The Carpenter finds a nice balance between introspective and raucous.
The album opens with "The Once and Future Carpenter", an easygoing song that features two of the band's favorite topics: the road and the contemplation of death. Over a simple folk guitar line and cello and organ accompaniment, Scott tells the story of a drifter who gave up the life of a carpenter, concluding the chorus with "If I live the life I'm given / I won't be scared to die." It's as straightforward a folk song as the band has ever done, and it's a strong start to the album. It turns out, though, that the background instrumentation is what is really setting the stage for the rest of the record. The drums and organ are quite subtle on this song, but subtly expanded instrumentation is what sets The Carpenter apart from the band's previous albums.
Second song "Live and Die" puts Seth and the banjo out front, with a lovely country melody, an irresistible singalong chorus, and an even better pre-chorus. The song's shuffle beat and bright banjo riff instantly recall the band's great Emotionalism track "Paranoia in Bb Major", except with a huge chorus. The quiet "Winter in My Heart" follows, using Joe Kwon's cello to great effect as well as a subdued out-of-nowhere singing saw solo.
"Pretty Girl From Michigan" is a joyous anti-love song full of recriminations. "Can you not see / What you've done? / You gave your heart away like that / I didn't want to fall in love with anyone / But you did", sings Scott over a catchy 6/8 rock piano line. And then about 45 seconds in, a nicely chunky electric guitar shows up to fill in the gaps between lyrics. It's an interesting musical shift for the band, and the guitar is a great counterpoint to Scott's sardonic lyrics. "I Never Knew You" may be the album's biggest ear worm, another winner from Seth. The sarcastic chorus "I guess it's kind of funny how / I loved you so much back then / You say I wouldn't know you now / Well, I didn't even know you then", is another instant singalong. The song has a real '60s pop feel, and the band's use of tubular bells in the background is a canny choice to accentuate that feeling.
Other songs make similarly clever choices. The folky "February Seven" features a lot of Kwon's cello, then it harmonizes the cello line before eventually bringing in what sounds like a whole string quartet, plus triangle and glockenspiel. "Down With the Shine" relies on repeating its chorus ad nauseum, but it also uses a full brass choir. Although the brass is used strictly to add color to the song, it gives the listener something to focus on beyond that endlessly repeating chorus. The beautiful "A Father's First Spring" is a song in the occasional "I love my new child" genre that songwriters tend to do when they have a kid. But that doesn't make the emotion any less genuine, and the relatively brisk (for this type of song) tempo keeps the track from feeling too saccharine.
To keep the end of the album from dragging after "A Father's First Spring", the band follows that song with two upbeat ones, the quick and slightly silly "Geraldine" and "Paul Newman vs. the Demons", the latter of which is the album's clear outlier. "Paul Newman" opens with a burst of feedback and a traditional rock drumbeat before a snarling distorted guitar riff comes in as Scott sings passionately, "You may have to drag me away / From my demons / Kicking and screaming." The organ shows up right before the chorus, which shifts the song into a thumping half-time hard-rock workout with the lyrics "Live through the past again / How many times must I / Live through the past again / Noooo more." As a dark rocker, the song really works, with effective minor key tension in the verses alternating with that pounding chorus. It's a different sound for the Avetts, who originally brought rock energy to their acoustic instruments. Scott and Seth sing passionately here, but they let the drums, guitars, and organs do the rocking. The thing is, their use of traditional rock instrumentation on the song makes them sound a lot like any other rock band. As well-done as the song is, it's also the only track on the album that made me think about how it would've sounded in the classic Avett Brothers set up, where they couldn't just rely on plugging in the electric guitars and on letting their new full-time drummer Jacob Edwards pound away.
Still, there are no real missteps on The Carpenter. The Avett Brothers have been around for over a decade now, and they're at a point where they know exactly what they want to do but haven't run out of songwriting inspiration. A lot of their lyrical material is relatively typical relationship songs, but Scott and Seth are willing to give equal shrift to the good times and the bad. Commercially, the band seems to have grown almost entirely by word of mouth to the point where they're headlining festivals without the radio success of fellow folk-Americana act Mumford and Sons. The Carpenter has the band poised to continue that slow, steady growth, but the right exposure for a song like "Live and Die" or "I Never Knew You" could find them really taking off into stardom.