Avett Brothers – Sing out!
It all starts, and ends, with the voices.
Shorthand attempts to classify the Avett Brothers usually go something along the lines of “punk bluegrass” or “thrash folk” or “high-energy hillbilly.” None of which are necessarily improper; Scott and Seth Avett will be the first to acknowledge their debt to ’90s grunge, even as they take the stage today playing banjo and acoustic guitar (along with upright bass from Bob Crawford, the non-genetic Avett Brother).
But in the end, it’s neither affectation nor instrumentation that gives the Avetts their identity. First and foremost, it’s the way they sing: loud and clear, proud and without fear.
In a sense, their vocal character is a reflection of their collective ideology as a band. It’s best summarized in a verse near the end of “Salvation Song”, the final track on their 2004 album Mignonette:
And they may pay us off in fame
But that is not why we came
And if it compromises truth
Then we will go.
Fittingly, as those words conclude, all the instrumentation fades away, leaving their three voices to deliver the song’s final chorus a cappella.
“We wanted something that was going to be more audible — something that shed some of the dead weight of just volume,” explains Seth Avett, the younger sibling in this trio from Concord, North Carolina. He’s recounting the band’s origins shortly after the 2001 dissolution of Nemo, a hard-rock outfit that frequently pummeled the vocals into submission with its sonic assault. Like most any hard-rock band is wont to do, naturally.
Perhaps it was just that they really didn’t have all that much to say back then. “I don’t think that I was as confident with having my lyrics heard,” Seth says of his Nemo-era songwriting. “At that time, it made sense to play music where you might want to hide it a little bit, because maybe you’re a little unsure and you’re feeling out the options you have for expressing something.”
Six years later, as the Avett Brothers prepare to release their fifth studio album, Emotionalism (due May 15 on Ramseur Records), that really isn’t a problem anymore. If Seth, now 26, once worried whether his lyrics were up to snuff, one need only examine “The Ballad Of Love And Hate” on the new album for evidence of his growth.
Its ten verses masterfully play out a push-pull battle between emotions cast as human characters: “Love arrives safely with suitcase in tow,” begins one verse, while “Hate sits alone on the hood of his car” in the next. Even the tiniest details convey dramatic tension: “The clock in the kitchen says two fifty-five/And the clock in the kitchen is slow.” These are words well worth hearing, and on Emotionalism, they battle nothing, set to a sole acoustic guitar backdrop.
Not everything on the new record is so spartan. Indeed, Emotionalism is by far the Avetts’ most instrumentally ambitious and sonically accomplished recording to date. The band’s previous records delivered the songs but never quite got the sound right, sometimes feeling too self-consciously ragged (as if trying too hard to be “live”), sometimes just not aurally up to snuff. They were determined to take a step forward this time.
“The biggest difference, right off the bat, is that this was the first time we’ve ever even entertained the idea of having someone join us for producing,” Scott reveals. Emotionalism was co-produced by Bill Reynolds (bassist for fellow North Carolina band the Blue Rags) and Danny Kadar (an experienced studio hand with engineering and/or mixing credits ranging from My Morning Jacket and Chris Whitley to Iggy Pop and Ornette Coleman).
“We made it clear that they had an open line of communication, and input was welcome,” Scott continues. “Eventually you’ve got to say, ‘Hey, we’re not professional producers. We’re not. We’re maybe, by default, becoming better at it…and we feel confident with it; we’re not afraid to produce records. But why not open up and find out what happens when we use someone else? That automatically puts a new swing on things.”