Monday, September 28, 2009

I And Love And You: The Curious Case of the Missing Banjo...

I've had a digital copy of The Avett Brothers' I And Love And You for over a month now. The fact that I haven't said anything about it yet is a little telling. For one, because of the brothers' new label/record deal, I have been afraid to post (leak) any songs too far prior to release day (tomorrow). On the other had, maybe I haven't shared anything from the album for the simple reason that I'm not too thrilled with it.

Upon learning about the band's label switch and plans to record with the famous Rick Rubin, I was immediately torn. Good for them. Potentially bad for the music. As I've made clear before, I grew up on 'Texas Music' and was indoctrinated with the "Nashville Sucks" mentality, which despised anything considered major label or big-time. To say the least, the term Sell-Out was heedlessly thrown around at the first sign of an increased paycheck. While I've since learned that the devil doesn't reside in Tennessee, and in most cases, a band's musical direction is ultimately an inside decision, a little part of me dies inside every time a favorite band jumps a rung in the music world.

I And Love And You is a good album. There are a couple of great songs. But it will never compare to Emotionalism. End of story.

OK, well... not the end of this one. I've got a few points to hit on. The biggest turn-off from the disc is the blatant lack of banjo. It may be a genre-polarizing instrument, but Lord, don't completely take it away. Scott admittedly doesn't play the banjo in the traditional fashion - but that's what makes it so exceptional. At some point he picked up the instrument and figured out how to make music with it. So what he's not playing clawhammer. He makes the banjo as much a percussion instrument as a stringed one. It only makes a few scattered cameos on IALAY, the first of which may just be my favorite song from the album.

January Wedding

In place of the banjo and overall sparing instrumentation from their earlier efforts, Rubin' s product employs an increased presence of a full drum kit and heavy piano. Both of which The Avetts have included in their music before, but never like they do on IALAY. Oftentimes the barroom style piano riffs come as hokey, a little forced (see Kick Drum Heart). Before, The Avett Brothers have excelled in gradually building songs upon themselves, starting simple and unfolding into a more layered sound throughout. On the new album, too many songs start full-formed and have no room to grow.

On the positive side, Seth and Scott's vocals are as strong as ever. At times smooth, other times perfectly raw. Taking twists and turns and carrying the melodies throughout. But in the past, they've used their voices as the primary emotion-harboring instruments, proving they can get their message across without a room full of symbols and amps. Ill With Want, for example, could have been equally impressive without the huge chorus backlit with synthesized aahs and crashing symbols.

Most of my disappointment with the album can be attributed to production. The songwriting still shines through. In fact, it's the saving grace it. The trifecta of Head Full of Doubt, And It Spread, and The Perfect Space provides an insight to Scott and Seth's inner struggles. They lead into the album's high note at track 6 in the form of a perfectly-written song.

Ten Thousand Words

Had we not been supplied with The Avetts' Tiny Desk Concert at NPR, I would be fawning over the album version of Landry Room. While it's still a superb tune, having been introduced to the live version first leaves me feeling a bit cheated when I hear the song on the album. The phrasing and lack of energy, coupled with piano in place of banjo causes the song to simply get lost within the album. One place I do enjoy the beefed-up sound is in Slight Figure of Speech, where the instruments match the energy in the vocals. It reminds me of very early Avett Brothers.

Slight Figure of Speech

Although I've been a ball of negativity in this post, I And Love And You will end up being much better than many albums this year. But it's hard to be completely subjective and not make comparisons to their last album (and my undisputed top album) from 2007. If I were to take each of the 13 tracks from the album separately and express my thoughts, you would find a much more favorable review. On the whole, however, I just don't find myself in the state of awe that The Avett Brothers have so often put me in.

I still encourage you to make your own decisions regarding the album. Maybe with a little time and some high fidelity vinyl, it'll grow on me.

I And Love And You: [Direct][Amazon][iTunes]

Just as I finished writing this review, The Avett Brothers came on Letterman to play the title/lead-off track from the album. I And Love And You was the so-called single and the first track unleashed from the album. I was less-than impressed then, but as an album-starter, I think it serves its purpose well. The performance tonight portrayed everything I dislike about the album. Seth on the piano, Bob playing an electric bass, and someone on a full drum set in the back. Scott played the banjo, but I couldn't hear it. I feel bad for anyone getting their first taste of Avett from this Letterman performance. They used to be considered a punk/folk string band, but just showed the nation a low energy, out of context, mainstream song.

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