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.