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The Avett Brothers, "Magpie and the Dandelion" Reviewed

The Brothers

There are, with exceptions, two kinds of fans of The Avett Brothers, that folk/bluegrass/rock/country/blues band that came out as part of the Banjo Revolution: those who proudly proclaim to have been listening to them since 2003 (and who own all eight of their studio albums), and those who didn’t really know of them till “I and Love and You” came out on the radio in 2009. I admit to falling into the latter category, though I fell hard. “I and Love and You” haunted me for weeks, as I listened to it over and over again. Some of the plaintive beauty of that song, as well as the high-energy kick of their up-tempo songs from the album of the same name, are on display in Magpie and the Dandelion.

Depending on who you ask, teaming up with Rick Rubin was either the best thing or the worst thing that ever happened to TAB. Certainly their last three albums, produced by Rubin, have been far more polished. For some, that equals over-production, while for others it means bringing in new sounds for the better. Magpie and the Dandelion closely follows last year’s release of The Carpenter, which was criticized by some for being too pop. This new album was recorded at the same time as The Carpenter, which leads some to wonder if they should have just been one album and whether some of the songs from both could have been ditched. The sound on Magpie does seem more “old TAB” to me than Carpenter did (more banjos!), so perhaps they were meant to be distinct albums.
A folk thread runs through Magpie, one of loss and fear and qualms about change. It appears that fame and relentless touring have left a mark on the boys from North Carolina. There’s a lot of remorse about time spent on the road and the struggle to maintain personal relationships and personal integrity. “Good To You” apologizes for not being around for his daughter”s important life events, and worries “And when I come home, will you still want me to?” In “Apart from Me,” we find these lyrics: “And most of us out there got fooled as the gold/it glittered in the night/And we chased it fast like drunk buffoons/The banker lived, the artist died.” And “Skin and Bones” talks about the loneliness of the road and how “It’s quick to drag you in but hard to shake/It gives but doesn’t match how much it takes/Growing stronger and loud/I lived it but now i’m wanting out.”
Stylistically the album starts out strong with “Open Ended Life,” a lively toe-tapper that builds tempo well and finishes with an exuberant mix of guitars, banjo, piano, harmonica, and some tremendous fiddlling. “Morning Song” has some nice background vocals, and I read some interesting back story about the song. One of the background singers was the Brothers’ aunt, who has since passed away, so it’s something of a tribute to her. Scott and Seth Avett harmonize well together on this song; I’ve always thought that they sounded good together because their voices are similar. Sometimes they sound more like a double track solo than a duet. “Never Been Alive” is apparently an older song, one that they never recorded but played in concert. It’s a lilting waltz that might have been a nod to the old school fans who wanted their “old TAB” back. Tempo jumps up again next on “Another is Waiting,” a more pop-infused single, features plenty of ironic lyrics, heavy on the emo. The next few songs, “Bring Your Love to Me, “”Good to You,” and “Apart from You” are all pleasant, stripped down songs with the deceptively simple sounds that evoke doubt and hope. Banjo comes to the forefront in “Skin and Bones,” along with some nice kick drum, in a lilting tune that marries “old TAB” and the polish of big-time production better than any other on the album. “Souls Like the Wheels” is a lovely song and features some of the most guileless, clearest vocals on the album, but it’s a little jarring that it’s a live recording in the midst of all studio recordings, with loud applause echoing right into the mic. And it’s more than a little jarring when there is no break between it and “Vanity,” which is my least favorite song here. It tries to build to some kind of climax, but the riffing electric guitars and booming piano sound like a movie theme song from the ’70s. The album finishes nicely with “The Clearness is Gone,” another waltzing midtempo track in which the fuzzy electric guitars actually work, especially following some beautiful cello.
Whether Magpie and the Dandelion should be viewed as a companion album to The Carpenter or something completely unique, I find it superior to the earlier album, which felt to me like it was trying too hard. This latest TAB combines a lot of self-reflection with contemplation of love and fame and living in the middle of the road. While the songs, for the most part, did not astound me like I and Love and You, The Avett Brothers still deliver their charming, high-spirited blend of sounds.
Grade: B



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