opinion byADAM OFFITZER
The best bands of our generation have a tendency to wait years between albums, making each release a monumental “event.” Arcade Fire, Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem and Vampire Weekend have become known for making a splash with album roll-outs, touring the country, then going MIA for two or three years before coming out of hibernation to surprise us again.
That’s all well and good – it’s only logical that the repetitive cycle of long tours and endless interviews would result in a well-deserved break for the bands who work so hard to release brilliant, masterfully crafted albums.
But thank goodness for bands like The Avett Brothers, who seem to operate on their own repetitive cycle – releasing great music, touring throughout the country and playing every festival imaginable…then immediately doing it all over again. Since their debut EP in 2000, the Avetts have released three more EPs, three live albums, and eight full-lengths – that’s fifteen records in fourteen years. It’s a remarkable discography from a band that would apparently be lost without touring, and a pair of brothers who consistently produce a never-ending stream of catchy hooks, beautiful ballads and stunning harmonies.
Magpie and the Dandelion finds the band continuing a stretch of ballad-driven albums with slicker production and more polish than their earlier, simpler work. Starting with 2009’s I And Love and You, the Brothers sacrificed some of their raw, bluegrass sound for a smoother, poppier production (with a little help from the legendary Rick Rubin) – to fantastic effect. The ballads were accessible without being cliché, and the upbeat pop-rockers were catchy without being too corny – the incredibly passionate, throaty vocals of Seth and Scott Avett always maintained the band’s homegrown sensibilities, never washed out by the more mainstream production flourishes.
The warm opening guitar chords, easygoing drums and bluesy, rollicking piano of Magpie opener “Open Ended Life” make it clear that the Avetts are perfectly comfortable continuing the successful sound that dominated I And Love and You and its 2012 follow-up The Carpenter. "While we were working on The Carpenter, we were so inspired that we wrote another record as well," the band wrote back in August. "During those sessions, we just felt it. Working with Rick Rubin again, we tapped into something very special. It's like everybody was in the same zone.”
As this explanation implies, Magpie often feels less like a tightly constructed, thematically connected album and more like a collection of tunes the band came up with while on a creative roll. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Album single “Another Is Waiting” is a jaunty, fantastic two minutes of pop bliss that is the epitome of short and sweet. “Good To You” borrows half the melody of The Beatles' “Norwegian Wood,” transforming it into a soft, gorgeous piano-and-strings ballad (with Ben Folds slipping away from cultural relevance, the Avetts have claimed the piano-and-strings ballad throne). And on “Morning Song,” the brothers basically borrow from themselves, taking a variation of a subtle vocal melody from “January Wedding” (“because my heart and hers are the same”) and making it the centerpiece of a soulful, slow-building gem that eventually builds to a call-and-response gospel finale.
Unsurprisingly, Magpie gives us more of what we’ve come to expect from the Avetts. Over fourteen years, the band has toured and released music with a remarkable consistency – endless tales of love and loss, passionate performances, and heart-wrenching piano chords, guitar picking, string arrangements and vocal harmonies. There are definitely a few dull moments – the low-key melody and slow-burn waltz of “Never Been Alive,” in particular, never rises to the level of the band’s best work. And there are certainly moments of experimentation as well – “Vanity,” with its hard-rocking instrumental breakdown, finds the band uncharacteristically jamming on electric guitars before returning to the memorable piano melody that kicks it off.
But for the most part, Magpie provides us with another bundle of easygoing tunes from a band that seems to have a limitless supply. The Avett Brothers may not take a break anytime soon, but they deserve it. [B]