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It’s not easy to tread the middle road between mainstream success and credibility. People are quick to pounce on the unexpected, the middling indie band turned arena rock stars, and instantly decry them for simply doing what so many other bands have done before them. After all, think about how many bands we wouldn’t have if Led Zeppelin decided to embrace polka music and shun the mainstream instead of turning into the arena rock gods we now know them as. Of course, not every band can be as fortunate and talented as them. For every one Zeppelin, we have ten *insert bad popular musician/band here*. The burden of trying to write songs that both conform to modern trends and have their own unique voice is a heavy one and, as the saying goes, “more money, more problems” and it’s not like the Avett Brothers are lacking in the problems department. A quick sampling of some of their song titles (“Murder in the City”, “When I Drink”, and “The Weight of Lies” just to name a few) show a band that revels in their own troubles, a band that finds inspiration in them.
Their last album, I and Love and You, catapulted them into the mainstream. With help from producer Rick Rubin (who also plays the role of producer this time around), the Avetts cleaned up their edges while still keeping the beards and denim, forging a good blend of their original, manic folk roots and a catchier, poppier sound. Now that they’ve found their new home in arenas and amphitheaters, the obvious choice would be to release an album with that arena-filling sound. The Carpenter, however, is an exercise in subtly. Their melodies soar, but are grounded by a sense of melancholy and sadness.
The Carpenter lacks the garage-rock-esque energy that the Avetts brought to their previous material. There isn’t anything both as thrilling and anthemic as songs like “Kick Drum Heart” or “Paranoia in B-Flat Major”, but songs like “I Never Knew You” and “Geraldine” put up a good, albeit short, fight and these songs do a fine job of propping up the album and lightening the mood, despite their mournful lyrics. “We changed a lot and no one here can stop that train” sing the Avetts on “I Never Knew You”, but the tune is just so darn happy and bouncy that it’s easy to ignore the sadness.
Balladry reigns supreme and the Avetts pull it off nicely. The opening track, “The Once and Future Carpenter” features the lines “And when I lose direction I’ll look to the sky/when the black dress drags on the ground I’ll be ready to surrender”; a reminder to those who forgot of the Avetts’ constant struggle between optimism and sadness. Songs like “February Seven” and “Live and Die” are catchy and simple; easily relatable while still retaining emotional depth. The latter spins the tale of an eternal optimist finding the perfect match proving that it’s not all long roads and endless travel for the Avetts.
For the most part, The Carpenter is made up of many downbeat and lovelorn songs and never really deviates from this formula. As a result, the album can be a bit heavy handed at times. However, the music is always well-written and Seth and Scott (the two actual Avett Brothers) stand tall as two of the best singers of modern times; their slightly worn voices intertwining during choruses into beautiful harmonies.
“Pretty Girl from Michigan”, a rustic hoedown, continues the tradition (one that was sorely missed on their last album) of naming at least one song about a pretty girl from a certain area. It’s obvious that their hometown roots and beginnings are still important to the Avetts and, at the crossroads of fame and success, they chose to not budge an inch. The Carpenter is not a great leap-forward, but it certainly sounds like the beginnings of one. They simply will not let the trappings of fame hinder them, nor will they succumb to pressures of a growing fanbase. The Avett Brothers will simply be the Avett Brothers, something any real fan can appreciate.