Friday, September 8, 2017

The Avett Brothers: Rocking That Old Indie Hillbilly Sound

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Seven
The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You

Country music became mainstream in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as “rock” music increasingly favored power chords and screaming vocals. Audiences who loved melody and tunefulness found country appealing, especially as the FCC opened new FM frequencies, and country became available in cities, in lifelike stereophonic sound. But like any field suddenly flush with success, country paid a price, audible whenever programmers flood our ears with slick, urbanized “bro country” and formulaic drinkin’ songs.

The Avett Brothers famously began as a revisionist bluegrass outfit, but drifted into acoustic indie folk rock. They even highlight their transition in the first two tracks on this, their major-label debut album. After the ascending piano-driven title track launches the disc, the banjo lick on the second song, “January Wedding,” sounds old but not tired. Probably influenced by the millennial bluegrass revival, and the O Brother soundtrack, the Avetts lovingly burnish restored antique sounds.

But the lyrics further this theme. The alienation from self, the leaving home, in “I and Love and You,” contrasts with the ironic love lyrics in “January Wedding,” where the narrator laments that when he met his girl, she was “sick like Audrey Hepburn.” Ooh, harsh. This album turns on themes of alienation, loss, and disappointment. The self-flagellating lyrics remind listeners how much the narrator, who may or may not be alternating vocalists Seth and Scott Avett, hates himself.

On “Tin Man,” the singer calls himself “warm as a stone” and sings about how much he misses “the feelin’ of feelin’.” That message of feeling dead inside has country resonances going back to Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells. Yet the mildly twangy instrumentation seems to parody the sound of today’s egregiously self-serious Kontemporary Kountry, suggesting the message is actually ironic, a secret joke we get because we don’t just receive music passively, we’re active, thoughtful listeners.

The Avett Brothers' core lineup, from left: Seth Avett,
Joe Kwon, Bob Crawford, and Scott Avett

I grew up enjoying artists like Gordon Lightfoot and Carole King, musicians who disregarded advertizing niches and made music that sounded good, regardless of marketability. The Avett Brothers signal their continuity with that tradition, sometimes blatantly, as in songs like “Ten Thousand Words,” which launches with an intro so reminiscent of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” that, when another song starts, it brutally grabs your attention.

Their ecumenical musical influence increases in the McCartney-ish shuffle of “And It Spread” or the Motown backbeat in “Kick Drum Heart,” though it never overwhelms the band’s distinct musical identity. Heritage, for this band, represents a buffet, from which they sample omnivorously. Country audiences, familiar with how their genre currently appropriates influences from hard rock and hip-hop, may find this approach comforting… or possibly disorienting. Depending on whether you resist the sudden shifts, or accept them.

That same faux-country sound recurs on “It Goes On and On” and “Laundry Room,” suggesting the Avetts recognize their own hillbilly roots, while standing outside that heritage. Use of instruments like kazoo and musical saw play with this duality. But simultaneously, they play with—and subvert—indie rock conventions throughout this album. This continues a tradition much beloved in the “alternative” community, a sly awareness that the featured artist both relies upon, and resists, the record label.

The Avetts accomplish this, partly, by crafting arrangements that radio programmers will never smoothly incorporate into any genre playlist. “Ill With Want” and “The Perfect Space” both feature austere piano-and-string-bass arrangements that complement their lonely, isolated themes. But the latter track features jarring hard rock transitions, ensuring we can’t rest in their sound like a hammock, or phase them out like elevator music. It also ribs an industry dependent on (and hamstrung by) convenient marketing labels.

Finally, the album concludes with the song “Incomplete and Insecure,” where the singer laments that “I haven't finished a thing since I started my life, don't feel much like starting now.” In fact, he laments this over and over, like a Jesuit wailing “mea maxima culpa.” Yet from award-winning artists known for their musicianship and their stage presence, we know it’s fake, a lampshaded display of irony. By closing on this, they declare their position, both inside and outside the music establishment.

The Avett Brothers demand an attentive, engaged audience, and music buyers have happily given them that. They’ve parleyed the momentum from this album into three further major-label releases, several mass media subsidiary sales, and three Grammy nominations. Well, that’s mainstream success; clearly the establishment tweaks them back. The circle of life continues. And because we love their albums, but mock insidership, that means we’re Avett Brothers, too.

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