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The Thick of Thin Things: Examining The Avett Brothers I and Love and You

October 10, 2009

Boy, expectations suck sometimes, don’t they?  I battle the weight of expectations every time I visit the high-brow eating establishment known as Taco Bell.  I always expect a fulfilling culinary experience, but in the end all I get is heartburn.  In the musical world, expectations play a huge part in the perceived success or failure of a band, album, or song.

One band that is feeling the weight of expectations right now is the Avett Brothers, who released I and Love and You on American records this week.  The Avetts have been comparatively small time prior to this record–they’ve released a decent number of albums in the decade and developed a hard core following, but they’ve never really been more than a mid-level indie folk band.

Enter Columbia Records’ Rick Rubin, who saw enough in this small North Carolina band to sign them to his American imprint and then agree to produce their major-label debut.  I am a fan of the Avetts and have a great appreciation for their music, so this was great news for me.  Others in the blogosphere had a decidedly different feeling, some openly wondering if the Avetts were up to the task.

So the impending release of I and Love and You has been watched intently on one side by Avett fans eager to see the boys get their due and by those expecting utter failure on the other side.  The Avetts have been in the middle, incessantly touring and promoting themselves as if they were still working toward a major deal.

Those on the “hoping for success” side will be happy to know that I and Love and You is truly an Avett Brothers album, not some corporate schtick.  As is Rick Rubin’s wont, he hasn’t pushed his own musical sensibilities onto the group by forcing them into hip-hop beats or hard rock guitar licks.  Rather, he’s used his sharp ear and impeccable taste to help tighten the song arrangements and focus the songwriting (something the Avetts could have used on past releases).  The sounds on this album are gorgeous, and I’m not sure there’s another band that handles three-part harmony as uniquely and beautifully as the Avetts do.

Those on the “not ready for prime time” side will opine about the fact that much of this album could be mistaken for a late-70’s Jackson Browne release.  Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but when you take into account the breadth of the Avett’s repertoire and their ability to stretch the boundaries of folk music, this is a relatively conservative release.  When compared to some of the all-out jams on previous records (think “Talk on Indolence”) or to their high-octane live shows, the new album is just a little bland.  Critics are going to moan that when given the big stage, the Avetts played it safe.

Where’s the truth?  That’s up to the listener, in large part.  My take is that this album continues the trajectory the Avetts have been on since Mignonette and The Second Gleam.  That’s not a bad trajectory, mind you.  It seems to me that the band wants to be serious songwriters in their own right, and there’s no denying that they have a way with words and songwriting.  I think their more lighthearted stuff sets up expectations that this is a lightweight band, and it seems that the Avetts are trying hard to dispel that myth.  With that in mind, I and Love and You should keep them on the path toward “seriousness”.

Although I consider the Avetts very good songwriters, they are even better performers.  Face it, these guys are AMAZING performers.  Watch this video of their acoustic NPR performance and marvel at their live abilities.  Pay particular attention to the live version of “Laundry Room”.  I’m not sure why (maybe it’s a flaw in me) but with the Avetts I have difficulty separating the songwriting from the performance.  Unfortunately, their albums since Four Thieves Gone have not captured the energy of their live shows and I believe their reputation has suffered for it.  Bottom line, this is one of the best bands out there without qualification.  They have a range of material that puts most other acts to shame.  But their recent recorded output doesn’t reflect their range or their abilities, and until those things shine on wax there will always be questions.

Bottom line, the Avett Brothers are a great band.  While I and Love and You is a solid album (better than most albums coming out now), it strikes me as an unfinished story.  Too many exceptional things are left unsaid.

You can listen to the new Avett Brothers album on their website.  You can also find some older Avett tracks on our Last.fm site.

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