Given their relatively short time in the spotlight, The Avett Brothers have been around for a surprisingly long time. Originally formed in 2000 as something of a nontraditional folk band, the group released five studio albums and four EPs before striking it big in 2009 with the ballad “I and Love and You,” off the album of the same name.
Since that breakthrough, brothers Scott and Seth Avett, as well as stand-up bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon, have moved toward a roots-like sound firmly planted in pop form. On their new album The Carpenter, they seem intent on consolidating their place in popular music.
Much like the band’s last few albums, The Carpenter opens without fanfare, “The Once and Future Carpenter” proving something more of a slow burner than an explosion. Many of The Avett Brothers’ songs are like this: revealing their melodies and worthy bits gradually, building upon an earworm of a melody until you’re singing it in your head.
This quality makes them quite unlike many of their sound-alike peers, namely Mumford & Sons and Of Monsters and Men, bands that prefer grand barn-burning statements that ultimately ring hollow.
This is due, in part, to their aforementioned experience, particularly as a fierce live outfit, which ends each night with blood and sweat dripping off its strings. The Carpenter sounds like something of a refinement from a group that has spent plenty of time refining itself, like a group of four guys who have spent the better part of a decade together fusing their disparate thoughts into what are, ultimately, pop songs.
After so many albums, this approach does and doesn’t work in about equal measure. While “Life” and lead single “Live and Die” brim with liveliness and worthy melodies, “Winter in My Heart” and “Through My Prayers” register as far too precious, relying on cutesy metaphors and tinkling instrumentation instead of interesting songwriting.
This is also an exceptionally smooth and shiny production, with very few rough edges left for the listener to notice. Where songs like “Colorshow” of Four Thieves Gone rely on ramshackle banjo strumming and cathartic shouts, now The Avett Brothers trade in for the pure pop of “I Never Knew You” and “Pretty Girl From Michigan.”
This isn’t a bad thing, as the band really writes spectacularly catchy tunes meant to be heard in a theater or amphitheater. But raw spots help make the slower, more folksy numbers interesting to the ears and easier to sit through and prove that the group is not just auto-tuned voices. With the blinding sheen that producer Rick Ruben puts on everything, it can be hard to penetrate what makes most of these songs tick.
Yet the good far outweighs the bad. Contrary to popular narratives, The Avett Brothers haven’t become worse as they’ve grown in popularity. Instead, they’ve just morphed into an equally skillful pop band, blending their bluegrass past with the sounds of mainstream rock. They have done so in a way that never really grows tiring, perhaps because, unlike many of their peers, they don’t attack your ear – they insinuate.
Maybe they’ve grown a little faceless, but this could be chalked up to the market starting to look and sound very much like them. On The Carpenter, they navigate deftly.