The Avett Brothers Lose Their Touch
John Darr | Tuesday, October 15, 2013
It’s a word that gets thrown around an awful lot here in the indie community. Here’s the usual scenario: Jim likes Band A. Band A isn’t famous, so they don’t have the money to invest in Top-40, radio-level production. Jim doesn’t care about that, though – the band writes powerful songs with creative lyrics. The production, with its flaws and rough edges, gives the music a familiar and relatable feeling. Jim is happy with Band A and shares its music with every cute girl he meets.
Somewhere down the road, Band A releases a catchy song that some company uses in a commercial. The song blows up, and suddenly the band has money for Top-40, radio-level production. Band A proceeds to release an album that sounds cleaned up and professional. Since the record lacks the flaws and rough edges of its predecessors, Jim feels disconnected from the music. It’s almost as if the band has left him behind for a pop-radio audience. Jim is sad, and he goes off in search of other bands, hoping that his band might one day come back.
I’m a lot like Jim. I love finding hidden gems, bands that haven’t broken through the mainstream and are still recording music in home studios. But I’m also a producer – I can really get into an album where every note sounds perfect, where every musical surface is shiny and clean. Often I find myself defending albums that get pinned with the “overproduced” tag. After all, production is simply the shaping of sound that goes beyond the actual recording of the instruments. The ways to shape sound that can increase the meaning and power of the music are endless.
Sadly, I can’t find a way to defend the Avett Brothers’ new album, “Magpie and the Dandelion.”
The Avett Brothers is an extraordinarily talented indie-folk trio whose fantastic songwriting and direct yet effective lyrics have pushed them to the forefront of the genre. On past albums, their production has boasted small hints of do-it-yourself recording – a muddy bass drum here, some grit in the guitar strings there. Each little touch brought the Avett Brothers’ stories of small town social webs and existential American journeys remarkably close to home. They were a band that seemed to have a home in your jeans pocket; they belonged hidden in a cowboy’s cap.
On “Magpie and the Dandelion,” the Avett Brothers completely lose that feeling. Every instrument is stripped bare of personality, crafted in a Top-40 mold. Songs that attempt to recall the front porch end up recalling Target commercials instead. Without any rough edges or sonic personality, “Magpie and the Dandelion” falls incredibly flat. The unavoidable fact is that it’s overproduced to death.
If only the songs themselves could save the album. Lyrics are the Avett Brothers’ strength – listen to “The Ballad of Love and Death” and try not to cry. It’s the powerful simplicity and honesty that carry the band’s songs right to the heart of every listener. But in the context, “Magpie’s” supermarket lyrics like “Pack a change of clothes and a pillow for the road for when we drift off to sleep” sound irrelevant, prepared and cheap. The Avett Brothers, who so often excel at making listeners feel at home, simply sound like they’ve lost their home themselves.
Thankfully, a few songs do pull out of the pack. “Good To You” and “Bring Your Love To Me” boast exquisite arrangements with subtle instrumental flourishes that craft tangible atmospheres of emotion in spite of flat production. A live version of “Souls Like the Wheels” from “The Second Gleam” naturally escapes the production woes of the album.
It’s not as if “Magpie and the Dandelion” is a horrific album; it just sounds far away and alien, and in folk music, that’s deadly. As the one live recording on the album shows, this album could have been great if it had been recorded and produced with some sort of human edge. As an Avett Brothers fan, let me leave you with this advice: wait for the next concert and experience this album as it should be experienced – real, rough, and human.
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