Album review: Avett Brothers do what comes naturally

Avett Brothers

The Avett Brothers’ new album “True Sadness” is like seeing an old, country-roads girlfriend sitting pretty in a cocktail dress 10 years later looking like a big-city socialite. That ain’t who you fell in love with, but the attraction is still there and you’re interested to see where things can go this time around.

Upon hearing the gummy bass line and hand claps of the first single “Ain’t No Man,” surely most longtime fans had to double-check to make sure they were indeed listening to the Avett Brothers. It is straight pop song that fully embraces the production that goes along with it. The same can be said for “You Are Mine” with its bubbly piano, drums tracks and worbly effects, it sounds more like a Ben Folds outtake from “Rockin In the Suburbs” than an Avett Brothers track.

The piano player is not someone who comes to mind when you think of the Avett Brothers aesthetic, but they pull it off. This isn’t your older sister’s band from a decade ago, but everyone needs to grow. They are still the same invigorating performers and songwriters who can nurture your heart or burst it at the seams, they are just dressing their sound up in new styles.

Avett Brothers True SadnessThe Avetts have been expanding their ramshackle folk sound since 2007’s “Emotionalism” and it took a big bump from the Rick Rubin produced “I and Love and You” and the three subsequent albums he has worked on with the band, including “True Sadness.” The band has since reached a much larger and broader audience and its sound has followed suit. No longer could Scott and Seth Avett, bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon and their string instruments fill the theaters and arenas they were selling out, nor could it satisfy the musical ambition of the band as they included more drums, pianos and electric instruments to its songs. Now the group boasts a live lineup that includes drummer Mike Marsh, multi-instrumentalist Paul DiFiglia and fiddler Tania Elizabeth and there is a lot more force behind those original brotherly harmonies.

In a way, it makes sense they have moved in this direction. People fell in love with them as an acoustic trio singing folk and country songs, but Scott and Seth were first baptized in electric reverb in a rock band they formed out of college called Nemo. That full-band sound surely has been something that the group has wanted to unveil when it felt right again and now it has the financial wherewithal and artistic clout to do so. “Smithsonian” is a perfectly trimmed folk-rock pop song that is so easily pleasing with its banjo, fiddle, country rhythm and platitudes on life and love that it borders on cliche. But the song is framed well with the fuller instrumentation and “Mama I Don’t Believe” is a mid-tempo country heartbreaker whose emotional apex is a curling electric guitar solo that blends well with a gliding string section, something that you won’t find anywhere on “Country Was” or “Carolina Jubilee.”

What is interesting to think about as you listen through “True Sadness” is that there are vastly differing versions of each song. Scott and Seth rehearsed the songs as duos, with the core four of Kwon and Crawford and with the larger band and choose which version most benefited the song to record to tape. This approach certainly adds to myriad sonic styles and textures on the album, which in turn keeps it from feeling stagnant in one style. What might “Aint No Man” have sounded like with only the brothers belting it out with just guitars and kick drums? Or what might a sympathetic violin and piano arrangement add to the introspective acoustic ballad “I Wish I Was?”

They nailed the gnarled hoedown “Satan Pulls The Strings” with a full-band arrangement and it most certainly will go to hell in a hand basket in the best of ways on stage. If you get hung up on the drum track and trashcan effect on Scott’s voice, you’re missing out. This band can sing, write, play and perform on a caliber so few artists are capable of and to trying to box them into one sound is a disservice to them as artists. They are the music makers, the dreamers of dreams, let them do what comes naturally.

Related story: Before the band broke out, the Avett Brothers played for 55 people at Lake Tahoe’s Red Room. LINK

  • Avett Brothers
    “True Sadness”
    Label: American Recordings
    Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

About Garrett Bethmann

Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. He moved to Lake Tahoe in summer 2012.

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