I have to say that listening to The Carpenter, the latest release from The Avett Brothers, left me with mixed emotions. Although all the basic elements are in place that contributed to the band’s breakout success with I And Love And You, it just feels like there is too much of some things, and not enough of others.
As far as what has stayed the same, The Avett Brothers are still masters of their particular blend of Americana-tinged folk/rock, with cello and de-tuned piano moments a-plenty. Also returning to the helm for “The Carpenter” is producer Rick Rubin, who helped make I And Love And You the monumental record that it is. Also present is the poignant, emotive lyricism, best displayed in songs like “Winter In My Heart” (“It must be winter in my heart / There’s nothing warm in there at all”) and “Through My Prayers” (“Still they make me shiver but in a very different way / The pages of the calendar kept turning away / I have some better words now / But it’s too late to say them to you”). In fact, the lyrics themselves are probably the biggest evidence of the band’s growth and evolution.
So what’s the problem then?
In my view, The Avett Brothers (or perhaps their production team) are falling prey to the most common malady among artists who find themselves in the midst of mainstream success: a tendency to apply too much polish to a sound whose rawness was what made them popular in the first place. Gone are the primal screams found in “Kick Drum Heart” or the unbridled pathos of “Head Full Of Doubt/Heart Full Of Promise.” By comparison, everything on The Carpenter feels a bit too controlled—dare I say generic? Some might call this a “maturing” of their sound; I call it too much polish, and not enough spit.
Now, just so there’s no misunderstanding, this is not a terrible album; in fact, it’s very good, and worth adding to your collection. It’s just that after the last album, this one feels like the band wiped the spit off their mouths, dabbed the sweat from their brows, and just sort of took it easy. But therein lies the problem: we like the spit and the sweat. It’s what made us like The Avett Brothers at the start. Why do the record companies keep acting like they need to tone things down for us?
So…The Avett Brothers put out a new record. You should listen to it. You should go see them play live. They’re still a great band, and I don’t think The Carpenter is any indication that their flame is fading. Rather, I just think this record knocks off too many of the rough edges that helps define their sound. Hopefully, someone will get the message and apply the polish more gingerly the next time around.