Avett Brothers – Raggedy Righteousness
“Screaming my lungs out with nothing to say.” So goes the key line of “Please Pardon Yourself”, a song of almost palpable yearning and hope from the Avett Brothers’ new album Mignonette.
I’ll give them the first part of that lyric: The trio’s harmonies do involve a certain degree of hollering, much more so than your typical band that leans toward bluegrass or old-time country. But for the Avett Brothers — brothers Scott and Seth Avett, 27 and 23 respectively, joined by early-30s upright bassist Bob Crawford — it’s a vocal style that seems both to flow naturally and to serve them well.
The loud harmonies just might stem from their first paying gigs — if, that is, coins tossed into a guitar case constitute pay. When Scott was 18 and Seth was 14, the brothers would take the family truck to the strip at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina to try their hands at busking. A raised voice is usually a good way to attract some attention on the street.
Plus, the Avetts didn’t learn harmony singing from any of the usual-suspect brothers — your Everlys, Louvins or Stanleys — although one of the culprits was just a consonant away from being a Stanley. “For us, listening to Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell harmonize was the way we could relate to it,” Scott offers, citing the Alice In Chains lead pair and their influence on the brothers in their early teen years. “It was there in the Everly Brothers, and it wasn’t a problem for us to hear it, but it didn’t set us on fire like listening to Alice in Chains.”
Thus, their street shows would lean on Alice In Chains and Blind Melon songs presented with just an acoustic guitar and two developing voices that were still learning their way around each other. “It was rink-dinky, coffeehouse-cover, embarrassing, young,” laughs Scott, turning a description of those early efforts into a round of word association.
When Scott went off to college, both brothers plugged in and formed hard rock bands. Seth’s high school band, Margo, would rent out a club around Mt. Pleasant, North Carolina, and pack in a couple hundred kids on a Friday night. “When you’re in a town where not much is going on, any kind of event brings ’em out,” Seth explains. “We always had a drive to have some sort of happening, something worth getting up and going out for.” Scott’s college band, Cut Fat, would sometimes open for Margo at those skateboard-heavy musical free-for-alls.
The eventual move from hard rock to the sound at the heart of the three Avett Brothers albums — a spirited blend of bluegrass, old-time and folk, with pop melodies and punk energy also playing important roles — wasn’t brought about by a divine moment. It was more a series of moments; call it a gradual epiphany.
The main settings for this shift were house parties in the college town of Greenville, North Carolina, with the brothers again playing together. “We basically started with these old, old songs and then came into this rhythm that’s just, well…” Unable to put the rhythm into words, Seth stops talking and commences clapping and stomping. It’s effective. “We realized that one rhythm could make the whole night so fun,” he continues, when words once again will do. “It was less of a beat and more of a pulse.”
Deciding that a trio represented the best format for exploiting this pulse, banjo-playing Scott and guitar-playing Seth went in search of a standup bassist. A mutual friend told the brothers about Crawford, who was studying music at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
As Crawford recounts, an audition of sorts was scheduled for late on a Sunday night in the parking lot of a Media Play. “Empty parking lot. Two cars pull up. It was like a scene from The Sopranos. I was by myself, standing out there with my bass, and then these two guys roll up. I thought I was going to get whacked.”
Instead, they played a handful of traditional songs, and then it was suggested that they tackle an original tune. “So Seth says, ‘Here are the chords. C sharp minor, B minor,'” recalls Crawford. “In a bluegrass song? I had never heard of such a thing, back to back or whatever. There is something going on here. This is not your run-of-the-mill bluegrass thing.” Crawford was hooked.
The resulting collaboration found the Avett Brothers cornering the market on “r” words. Their sound is raucous, reckless, raw, righteous, and rousing. And there’s also the word they and their fans tend to return to and, when it comes right down to it, wear like a badge of honor: ragged.
You could point to Scott’s banjo playing, his singular style frequently more Hammer of the Gods than clawhammer, and you can’t ignore those aforementioned shouted harmonies. Their live shows inspire a similar list of adjectives, with Scott doubling on kick drum and Seth on hi-hat; all three of the guys stomp the stage as if they’re performing some kind of stress test. The whole affair, while undeniably tuneful, can best be described as a commotion.
This whirlwind presence has earned the trio comparisons to Jason & the Scorchers and the Pogues, though the fact that their maelstrom is often stirred up by rather skeletal instrumental arrangements has led to more than a couple of Violent Femmes name-drops in write-ups. The Avett Brothers are far from the first group to play bluegrass-leaning music with punk abandon, but, when you’re immersed in one of their performances, it’s easy to start thinking they’re inventing a musical clash of cultures on the spot.
It can take longer to realize that in the middle of this joyful noise is a pretty direct philosophy, which Crawford summarizes simply: “It’s about saying what you want to say, a beautiful melody, and a well-put-together song.” The band’s first two albums, 2002’s eight-song Country Was and last year’s exuberant A Carolina Jubilee, took that philosophy directly to tape, especially the latter release, which Seth describes as “the songs, the bass, the guitar, the banjo, the kick drum, the hi-hat, and our three voices — that’s about it.”
Having mastered the bare bones, they decided it was time to start fleshing things out a bit. The result is the more varied and adventurous Mignonette, the Avett Brothers’ second release for fledgling Ramseur Records.
You’d swear songs such as “Hard Worker” and the unapologetically urgent “Salvation Song” were in the public domain if they didn’t have the threesome’s sweaty fingerprints all over them. They make like the Kingston Trio 2004 courtesy of the call-and-response that drives “Nothing Short Of Thankful”. Crawford’s “The Day That Marvin Gaye Died” demonstrates how a perfect pop song can be created with bluegrass instrumentation. “At The Beach” reflects Seth’s interest in calypso while bringing to mind “Sweet City Woman”, the banjo-driven number by Canadian band the Stampeders that was a fluke hit six years before Seth was born.
And the Avett Brothers can go lovely on you at the drop of Scott’s pork-pie hat. For starters, there’s the opening track, “Swept Away (Sentimental Version)”. Featuring a rugged folk lilt that recalls Guy Clark and a vocal turn from Scott and Seth’s sister Bonnie, it’s flat-out gorgeous.
Adding to the family-affair feel of Mignonette is the appearance of Scott’s wife Sarah, who contributes violin to “Pretty Girl At The Airport”, another entry in the Avett Brothers’ continuing pretty girl series. (Previous installments included “Pretty Girl From Raleigh”, “Pretty Girl From Matthews”, “Pretty Girl From Annapolis”, and “Pretty Girl From Locust”.)
“Signs” was written by Avett patriarch Jim, and a version that he recorded in 1974 is included as an uncredited bonus track. The song, which pivots on the admission, “I didn’t mean to see the things I see in you and me,” features lyrics that are penetrating in their plainspeak, and Scott and Seth have clearly inherited that ability to dig deep using straightforward language.
So yes, back to the line from “Please Pardon Yourself”. Contrary to that lyric, the Avett Brothers have plenty to say. “I was a one-line wonder in my own love song,” sings Scott on “One Line Wonder”, speaking volumes with only twelve syllables. Two songs later comes “I’d take a nine to five for you,” as deep a vow of devotion as anybody’s likely to ever get from a working musician. And “A Gift For Melody Anne”, in one of the album’s most moving passages, offers this earnest mid-song declaration: “If I ever have a son, if I ever have a daughter/I don’t wanna tell them that I didn’t give my all.”
This family spirit and the acknowledgement of the importance of words come together in what turned out to be the unifying theme for Mignonette, a book titled The Custom Of The Sea that was recommended by Jim. Written by British author Neil Hanson, the book chronicles the sinking of the English yacht the Mignonette and the decisions, both horrific and ultimately honorable, made by members of its crew.
“The theme for the record kind of happened halfway through all of the developing of the songs, and then that helped seal the deal,” says Scott. “It was like we were at a door, and then the door just opened up: visual art-wise, the literary influence, a song like ‘Dying Sailor’s Lament’.” Adds Seth, “It was like we were singing for that reason. We just didn’t realize it at first.”
And then there’s the ship’s name. “Mignonette is a weed-ish type flower that doesn’t look very good, but it smells really good,” explains Seth. Scott picks up on the thought. “Yeah, the aroma is really sweet. And we were brought up with the idea that, hey, it may look kind of raggedy, but if it’s solid and it’s true and it runs, or if it smells good, then it’s something to hold onto.”