Since their 2009 breakout album, I And Love And You, The Avett Brothers have been working with superstar producer Rick Rubin. Despite being one of the most sought after producers today, many of the Avetts’ early fans have been disappointed with the glistening sheen that Rubin has used to glaze over the band’s endearingly imperfect sound, a facet that was once charming when they were folk’s best kept secret. Now three albums into their time with Rubin, this issue remains, albeit the diehard hold-outs are drowned out by ever-growing legions of new fans — their last effort, The Carpenter, peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Charts and went on to be nominated for Best Americana Album at the 2013 Grammy Awards, their first ever nomination. Their latest, Magpie and the Dandelion, continues that upward, if complacent trajectory.
Despite the nagging concerns from longtime fans, The Avett Brothers earned their success the hard way, touring nonstop for several years in support of each impressive indie release. They were perpetual underdogs, earnestly hyping their charming brand of bluegrass-tinged folk. Since their team-up with Rubin, the Avetts have polished their approach; they’ve tightened up their compositions, started using pianos, added a drummer, and fully utilized the studio luxuries that working with Rubin brings. While this transition hasn’t been the smoothest, and some of their recent songs have verged on sappy or even bland, they’ve managed to largely maintain their trademark charm.
With Magpie and The Dandelion, released just 13 months after The Carpenter, The Avett Brothers are on pace to continue their Rubin-fueled commercial success. Opener “Open Ended Life” is the Avetts at their best, a rollicking, rocking track complete with bluesy harmonicas and a foot-stomping fiddle solo. The lyrics center on the idea of a life not constrained by rules or boundaries, a romantic notion and one that works extraordinarily well for the Avetts. “Morning Song” and “Never Been Alive” are pleasant enough, thanks to the latter’s lyrical winks (“Money won’t do the trick/ But it will help”) and the former’s winsome hopefulness. Unfortunately, this revelatory approach, adeptly straddling the line between their roots and their major label demands, loses its momentum by the fourth track.
On “Another Is Waiting”, the album’s lead single, the band tries their hand at their most straightforward pop song yet. It’s concerned with staying true to yourself and doing the right thing — a recurring theme throughout The Avett Brothers’ discography. Though their previous releases offered palatable singles to the public, songs like “I And Love And You” and The Carpenter’s “Live And Die” had emotional resonance not found here. While it works as a perfectly radio-ready single, “Another Is Waiting” feels lifeless compared to their previous offerings — bland pop rock with banjos and a southern drawl pasted in.
“Good To You”, a heartfelt, piano-driven ballad, and the nimble acoustic guitars on “Apart From Me” do well to regain some of the lost footing, but the record ultimately succumbs to an unnecessary live track. “Souls Like The Wheels”, a cut off their beloved The Second Gleam EP, was reworked and recorded from a live concert for Magpie. Using previous material for a new LP is a puzzling choice, one that unfortunately highlights a band not entirely sure of itself and its increased exposure. While it’s a stunning song, many with even a passing interest with the Avetts have undoubtedly heard it before, making it seem like a slipshod attempt to appease those persnickety fans who still want them to go back to their basics.
Another misstep is the penultimate “Vanity”, with co-lead vocalist Seth Avett noticeably straining to reach a nasal tone that doesn’t really work. In the middle of the track, uncharacteristically fuzzy electric guitars and a turgid piano cloud the song and distract from their strengths — much like The Carpenter’s penultimate track and lackadaisical attempt at being heavy, “Paul Newman vs. The Demons”. Even though Seth and Scott Avett originally had aspirations at hard-rocking grunge stardom, these tracks show that they’re much better suited for the folksy identity they’ve created for themselves. Fortunately, whiskey-soaked closing lament “The Clearness Is Gone” is pure Americana, peppered with wailing guitar solos to provide the perfect album-ending moment.
Over the course of their decade-long career, The Avett Brothers have stuck to their guns, and the results have on the whole been outstanding. But, Magpie and the Dandelion is a minor step down from the bar they’d previously set. “Open Ended Life” and “Skin and Bones” summon the immediate triumphs of pre-Rubin albums Emotionalism and Mignonette, but the remaining songs don’t even compare to the cuts taken from the two poppy, Rubin-produced discs. With just a little more time and some soul-searching, maybe the Avett Brothers can better incorporate the pop and solidify their newfound voice.
Essential Tracks: “Open Ended Life”, “Skin and Bones”, and “The Clearness Is Gone”