The Avett Brothers: Magpie and the Dandelion

The Avetts return with their eighth album, a set of ringers, leftovers, sweet talking, and a live track for true believers.

The Avett Brothers

Magpie and the Dandelion

Label: American
US Release Date: 2013-10-15
UK Release Date: 2013-10-15

The new Avett Brothers album kicks off with “Open-Ended Life”, a knockout country rocker that features Scott Avett’s banjo burples, Seth Avett’s twang-guitar blang sounding straight out of Uncle Tupelo’s basement, a harmonica that blows in like a holdover from the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and a zippy fiddle coda that anchors a rousing final minute.

However, if such a barnburning opener gets anyone’s hopes up that the Avetts have made their countrified Midnight Ramble album, the rest of the record will cool those jets in a hurry. The other ten songs on Magpie and the Dandelion play like a linear move from last year’s The Carpenter, and for good reason: the majority of these tunes come from those same recording sessions, and nearly everything here reflects the Avetts’ songwriting instincts of late to slow things down to a crawl.

The Carpenter, remember, was the follow-up to the Avetts’ breakthrough I and Love and You, and their newfound mainstream fame found them heading back into the studio with I&L&Y’s producer Rick Rubin, who, instead of going big to capitalize on the previous album’s power-ballad and pop-punch potential, helped the boys simplify their approach to country-folk tunesmithing to make a mostly quiet, contemplative record.

More of the same, then, for Magpie and the Dandelion. In fact, despite a pronounced uptick in visibility, musical freedom, and fan anticipation, some have looked to a new Avett Brothers album to push forward the neo-folk movement, of which they now feel like middle-aged statesmen, even if it’s in the form of a revival of some of their rawest stompgrass roots. No go. In fact, for perhaps the first time, the Avetts seem unconcerned, for better or worse, with any kind of progression and even less with trying to assimilate to any of this year’s other indie-folk success stories stretching from Colorado to Iceland.

So what we have here are 11 sweetly melancholy folk-rock tunes about companionship, loss, fatherhood, and survival. Coming just a year and some change after the last record, Magpie does show off some compositional riches in serviceable songwriting and a continuing pursuit of refined musicianship. Such a focus on taste, however, will be precisely the problem for their oldest fans. One of Rubin’s talents as a producer is helping artists whittle ideas down to a tight compositional economy and providing textures that are vibrant but unobtrusive.

The holdovers from The Carpenter are heavy on austere midtempo numbers, so the record offers a uniformity that allows for little-to-none of the bouncy pop left-turns found on the previous two albums. In that sense, with The Carpenter as a reference point, Magpie is more “February Seven” than, say, “Paul Newman vs. The Demon". That’s mostly a good thing, as anyone who has heard the latter song will admit, but not much on Magpie reaches the heights of the former, either.

“Morning Song” finds Scott getting typically opulent, a moment of beauty that will regardless do nothing for old Avett fans who still consider Emotionalism their last great album. It’s a hard-hurtin’, drinkin’-again song, but you can’t keep these boys down for long, as a thickly-harmonized up-with-people chorus finds its way in, and as the strings swell, so will the hearts of those Avett believers who like to link arms and sway at their concerts.

Some of the new album plays to the band’s strengths: “Never Been Alive” is an easy piano- based ballad what wouldn’t feel out of place on a Jayhawks record, and “Another is Waiting” flashes some of the boys’ bubble-drum pop intuition, and the forced whine in Seth’s adenoidal vocals on “Another is Waiting” only increases the nice-boy devotion the ‘Vetts work so hard to cultivate. In fact, it’s hard to ignore that these guys are getting increasingly, well, precious, the kind of band that names its album Magpie and the Dandelion.

“Bring Your Love to Me” is a daffodil ballad sung by Scott that lopes along with bittersweet chord changes beneath soul-syrup lyrics: “Bring your love to me / I’ll hold it like a newborn child / One of my own blood / And I might just even sing a song to keep it calm.” “Good to You” is another quiet piano meditation backed by Joe Kwan’s cello, with hints of “Norwegian Wood” and open-hearted lyrics about missing kids and weddings on the road (“I want to be good to you / I want to be there for you / And when I come home / You still want me to”).

The album occasionally turns an ear with a slight surprise here and there -- the band autobiography “Skin and Bones” defined by Scott’s Shakey’s Pizza banjo; the vibey heaviosity that breaks loose at the end of “Vanity” is a real highlight; and the band goes for baroque at the end of “The Clearness Is Gone” before channeling Wilco on a rather lovely electric guitar solo.

Still, the album’s most affective moment comes with the inclusion of a live version of “Souls Like the Wheels”, a fan favorite from the band’s 2008 EP, The Second Gleam). Seth’s only-ever live performance (from a 2012 St. Louis concert) is a thing of beauty, and the song itself has inspired countless dormroom YouTube guitar selfies.

On the other hand, the inclusion of a live “Souls Like the Wheels” -- not as a bonus track, but right in the thick of things -- lends the record a hodge-podge feel, and gives credence to suspicions that the record isn’t much more than a collection of leftovers rather than a proper eighth studio album. Sure, it’s a decent bunch of leftovers and will likely appeal to Avetts dreamers who prefer the brothers serene and misty-eyed. For everyone else, Magpie and the Dandelion is competently played, handsomely arranged, and fairly boring.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.