Best Albums of 2012 Closeup: The Avett Brothers - 'The Carpenter'

"Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes." 

This provocative quote came from Maggie Kuhn. If you're unfamiliar, she was an activist and member of the Silver Panthers - a radical organization which organizes to seek justice for older Americans. It's a popular quote, sure, but placed in the context of the woman who was speaking, it packs a real powerful punch. This is an intelligent, strong, dignified older woman who was speaking to an audience of older people who have already powered through life's greatest uncertainties with their heads high. The beginning of the quote talks about looking the people you fear in the face.

The point is that fear never gets easier. And, even more than that, the truth is never easy to tell. But telling it is, indeed, important. 

The Avett Brothers have built their whole career on telling the truth, with all its imperfections and unglowing, wart-strewn poky points. Somehow so magical that I can't even begin to articulate, they've found a way to do this that makes you stomp and jump and twirl around like a hula-hooping hippy. Yes, their songs are downright catchy and packed with emotional urgency. So much so that, for the past couple of years, bands have been picking up banjos and guitars and cellos, trying to pour their own fluid into the mold cast by the Avetts and their band. The result has been an emergent sound that's young and optimistic and emotional and raw. 

Look more closely at most of those bands, though, and the rawness you're staring at is about the artistic equivalent of a freshly opened box of macaroni and cheese. It's the stuff you consume on the way to something better to do. The Avetts, meanwhile, are serving all the ingredients for something homecooked and slaved-over - something to nourish themselves as much as you, something to carry us through. 

What's more, when they sing, their voices often shake.

Though there are moments on The Carpenter where the vocals soar with utter smoothness - giving me the impression they did a number of takes to nail that element - producer Rick Rubin was right to leave in the stuttering parts. Those where their voices are less sure-footed amid difficult emotional declarations. Indeed, some of what they're unloading here are feelings you would slave over before you mustered the will to whisper them to your most intimate friend. The uncertainty with which they share those feelings openly with all of us strangers reminds us what it is to muster courage.

To follow the metaphor set forth by their album title - it's the dirt and sweat and trust of building something tangible from a mere idea.

There's this other band who released one of the highest selling albums of the year doing something that struck me as a predictable facsimile of all the exquisitely honest, raw emotion the Avetts exude from their pinky nails. I think Mumford has so much more in them, so I'll remain optimistic and wait for their next album, even as I wonder why they enjoyed so much success this time around.

Then again...

Once upon a time, I decided to learn how to play the trumpet. I'd been playing musical instruments for something like 25 years at that point - all of them with strings or keyboards. So, the trumpet seemed like a fun diversionary task for me. Something new to spark some inspiration. One of the first things my trumpet teacher had me do was to hold long tones, to get a hang of my embouchure. (For you non-woodwinds people, that's French for "how you hold your mouth.") I was supposed to move through all the various scales and arpeggios via whole notes. But, there was this impulse when I landed smack-dab on, say, a middle-C, to just keep doing long tones of the middle-C. I was so happy to have hit the right note, I just wanted to hear and feel the note coming out of me again and again. Of course that would not have served my development on trumpet at all, so I resisted the urge and moved along up the scale. 

I tell you this little story because there is an impulse in music to repeat yourself. Once you've landed on the thing that strikes the chord, that gets the audience responding the way you want them to, that gets the energy in the room to a certain level, and so on - you kind of just want to recreate that. But, while there is a certain part of art which requires recreation on some level, making the same album again and again in hopes that it'll hit people just as hard, is kind of boring if you ask me. 

Yet, we hear from critics and fans all the time who complain that an artist has tried something new or gone down a different path. When, if we allow artists to be artists, we have to admit that creativity and consistency are not always friends. Consistency is for Starbucks lattes and McDonalds fries. We should leave the predictability to fast food and WalMart and let the artists lunge in whatever directions entice them. It's those among us who run in new and different ways, who turn us on to the existence of other possibilities beyond what we can see in our immediate view.

We need them telling us the truth, even when their voices shake.


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Views: 2354

Comment by Tom A Aarnes on November 29, 2012 at 11:06am

what a lovely song and nice lyrics

Comment by Julie Wenger Watson on November 29, 2012 at 6:07pm

Great post. Thank you.

Comment by Jereme Wheeler on November 29, 2012 at 8:10pm

I'm glad to see this here. I saw them in Clearwater last month and they put on a hell of a show.  I see people sometimes dismiss them as being too pop or fake, but I don't get it. Just because something is catchy or has a nice hook doesn't mean it's to be instantly written off as shallow, vapid pop. I swear sometimes I think hipsters just want to be miserable.  

Comment by Miss Holly on November 30, 2012 at 5:22am

Yet again, an incisive commentary, Kim.  I am a big Avetts fan and recommend their live shows to anyone who wants a great live music experience.  I appreciate that here are real people, warts and all, who are proud of their families, honest about their lives, truly love making music, and remain humble enough to say they'd still be singing and playing on their front porches if all the fame disappeared overnight.

From the very beginning, I've thought that the Mumfords are a pale imitation of the Avetts.  I don't understand their popularity, except that perhaps their shallow efforts are easier to swallow than the honesty that the Avett Brothers reveal (and the fascination folks have with all things British.) I'll stick with The Real Deal - homegrown and true American treasures. 

Comment by Bruce Conforth on November 30, 2012 at 6:43am

I think both the last two posts have something of the truth (as I subjectively see it) in them.  Having lived through the folk revival of the 1960s (and I'm not going to use that to compare or diss the Avetts and Mumfords) I hardly think I'd qualify as a hipster, and Jereme is right - nice hooks and catchy tunes do not inherently make for shallowness.  But neither do being good people, warts and all, honest and family loving certify that you can therefore produce "The Real Deal"  (whatever THAT is!).  Good intentions do not, in and of themselves, ever guarantee good music or art.
I think both the Avetts and Mumfords are just on different places of the same acoustic continuum that's taking us further away from trad music (I specifically chose the word trad to avoid the problematic term "folk") and toward a more pop-informed genre.  I've never though the Avetts were shallow, but I also never saw them as being very distanced from nice acoustic pop.  If the Avetts are "The Real deal" then what do you call the people in the article just preceding this one- The New Young Fogies?   Be careful what you consider your treasures.  Pandora thought she had one in her fabled box.

Comment by Mike Ollier on November 30, 2012 at 6:54am

You hit a nail in that last paragraph. Why, WHY do people go to gigs and shout for the "hits" ~ I'm sick of hearing people at Waterboys gigs shout for Whole Of The Moon or All The Young Dudes at Ian Hunter concerts. I want to hear something new, I 've heard those songs for 30/40 years.

As you say, some bands/artists are brave enough to try something new ~ artists should, like 'people,' be allowed to grow and make mistakes. It's a rare artist indeed who hasn't made one or two bad albums, but give me someone attempting something new each album (like The Waterboys) than someone like Queen who's albums sound the same every time to me and stick to a formula.

The reason Mumford's are successful is marketing and watering down the ideas that have been around for decades ~ their albums are safe, clunky, samey and deeply boring and don't have the honesty of bands like the Avetts.

Comment by Kim Ruehl on November 30, 2012 at 6:55am

I don't think there's any comparison between the Avetts and the New Young Fogies project. Two different realms of music. I do think it's impossible to be born and raised in Southern Appalachia without being heavily influenced by traditional music, and I think the Avetts are certainly informed by trad music. But I think even they would probably contend they're not even trying to make trad music. They're just trying to make the music that's true to who they are, which speaks for them as individuals. Actually I believe that's pretty much what Seth told me when I interviewed him a couple years ago. 

The trouble is in assuming people are trying to make traditional music just because they're playing acoustic instruments. Sometimes people pick up acoustic instruments because that's what feels right. I don't think all pop is vapid and meaningless, but I also don't think the Avetts are making pop music. I think they occupy some strange space between the two (which I'd still consider folk music, but that's a different debate for a different time). My point was not to argue that the Avetts are making folk music or traditional music. My point was to argue that the Avetts made one of the best albums I heard this year. Traditional music doesn't have a corner on the truth. In fact, I'd say there are some people making it now who are doing so just to play a character, with no element of truth at all. They're just putting on a costume. I think Mumford is a rock band putting on a banjo costume. I think the Avetts have placed honesty above all else. They just happen to be lucky that their way of telling the truth makes people bounce around.

Comment by Miss Holly on November 30, 2012 at 7:03am

Your final sentences absolutely nail the whole thing, Kim.  Just one more reason why I read your posts first every time they appear.  Thank you!



Comment by Bruce Conforth on November 30, 2012 at 7:13am

I wasn't trying to compare the Avetts with the New Fogies people... I was making a comment on the concept of "The Real Deal"...  How does one decide what is "The Real Deal" and is that even possible or merely a romantic notion that we have somewhat akin to the incredibly misguided concept of "authenticity."

Personally I NEVER assumed the Avetts were trying to make trad music, nor do I think they're making folk music (but you're right... that's a debate best held over drinks and even then it never ends up getting resolved).  And while I agree that its erroneous to assume that because someone is playing an acoustic instrument that they're trying to play trad music, I also don't understand why there is an aversion to calling what the Avetts do "acoustic pop."   Personally I think there's a lot of absolutely fabulous pop music.  Nora Jones comes to mind as a wonderful pop artist who, like the Avetts, occupies a space in between genres - informed by other traditions but not necessarily existing fully in any of them. 

And while the Avetts have never really appealed to me (and heavens neither have the Mumfords), I would also agree with you that even though I personally don't find much of significance in what they're doing I far prefer them to players who just "put on a costume" and think they're being relevant.

Comment by doug heselgrave on November 30, 2012 at 8:51am

Nice work Kim!  The best piece I've read at ND in ages!


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.