The Avett Brothers
onfession: Before hearing this record, I had no idea who the Avett Brothers were. In fact, the only reason I even heard this album in the first place was because of its intriguing name, Emotionalism. With a title like that, I was expecting the soundtrack to an awkward Broadway show, an all-Nickelback covers record, or a new Death Cab for Cutie EP. What I wasn’t expecting to find was a trio of banjo-pickin’, fiddle-wieldin’, upright bass-playin’ Carolinians with a penchant for bluegrass, grunge, and calypso.
That’s not to say this album is weird. In fact, it’s rather conventional. The key attributes of Emotionalism, from the storytelling to the rudimentary instruments to its homespun charm to the emphasis on harmonic vocals, are qualities shared by seemingly all great traditional American music. That’s why you may find that opening track “Die Die Die” begins inconspicuously, with a simple guitar strum and heavy-handed verse (“She’s fighting with the sky / She thinks she can”). But over the course of its three minutes, it slowly evolves into a glorious rave of guitars and vocal overlays. What you’d have thought was going to be a trite pseudo-poem about death is subtly transformed into a catchy mocking of a fractious lady.
Indeed, such emotive deception is common throughout Emotionalism: tracks change in musical styles and attitudes in a flash. “Paranoia in B Flat Major,” for example, switches from folk to bluegrass to music hall before closing on a dramatic fade out that borders on twee-pop. Likewise, “Pretty Girl from Chile” veers so deliciously from George Strait to the Gypsy Kings to Crazy Horse that you’re apt to forgive the awkward voicemail message wedged before the coda. Even a number as lyrically straightforward as “Pretty Girl from San Diego” proves to be obliquely arranged. Seaside waves collide with ukuleles; a banjo and acoustic guitar combining to mimic the sound of a steel drum; the jingle of skiffle meeting the Hawaiian Islands. Theoretically it should be a complete mess, but in reality, you’ll be hard pressed to hear something so joyful and unique all year.
As you’d expect from great old-fashioned tunesmiths, the Avett Brothers’ real strength lies in the interplay of their storytelling and musicality. Neither the lyrics nor the music ever seem to force their way into your attention span; rather, their effects are almost subliminal, catching you before intentional comprehension can set in. Such creative dexterity allows narrative tracks like “Shame” and “Will You Return?” to be as jaunty and introspective as anything off of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
The goodwill even extends to a track like “The Ballad of Love and Hate,” which details an authentic romance between the embodiments of these ineffable forces under the accompaniment of a single acoustic guitar. It’s literally a love-it-or-hate-it song. Some listeners (I included) will find it delicate and heartbreaking, while leaving many others gagging of over-sentimentality. Yet, despite its polarizing nature, the fact that the Avett Brothers had the stones to release such a song is quite an accomplishment in itself.
Considering the sheer intensity lying within each track, this is as carefree a record as they come. Take into account how the instrumentation is jagged and raw, yet the production sound is detailed and polished; how the vocals seem carefully arranged but aren’t above the occasional shout or two; the contrast between the overt sensitivity of the lyrics and the band’s “heart on a sleeve” unruliness. Yes, the album is a few songs long, but it certainly doesn’t become tedious. Emotionalism doesn’t sound or feel like a perfect album, because it isn’t, and doesn’t have to be. It’s merely the latest masterwork of Americana in the lineage of rock-era pioneers Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Will the Circle be Unbroken and modern classics Being There and Heartbreaker.
Reviewed by: Andrew Casillas
Reviewed on: 2007-07-26