Avett Brothers – Sing out!
Much of the “new swing” that shines on Emotionalism is a proficiency for pop songcraft the Avetts have never demonstrated quite so richly and fully, even though they’ve been lurking around the edges of it all along.
The reputation which precedes them after several years of dogged touring (documented by hundreds of live video clips posted by their fans on YouTube) is that of a wild and rowdy trio perhaps more bent on physical exertion than on musical sophistication. But their songs are commonly melodic enough to remain memorable long after the shows have ended. It’s one of the primary traits that helps them stand out amid the growing cadre of youthful string-band revivalists in contemporary roots music.
Previous Avetts recordings, though, never quite fully realized the pop potential in their songwriting. A case in point is “Distraction #74”, frequently a live highlight on the strength of the trio’s tag-team vocal interplay. The studio version on last year’s Four Thieves Gone, though, didn’t take advantage of the chance to flesh out the arrangement; instead, it was dragged down by gratuitous howls in the chorus that detracted from the song’s musicality.
Things are different on Emotionalism, right from the opening track, “Die Die Die”. (No, they haven’t regressed to death metal, it’s just a simple syllabic chant — think “La La La,” not “Murder Murder Murder.”) The song itself is not really anything new for the Avetts; but the way the instrumentation is arranged, and especially the way the vocal harmonies are exquisitely layered, recalls nothing so much as “Love Me Do”-era Beatles.
Even more striking in this respect is “Will You Return”, which bolsters its jaunty rhythm and insistent melody with a bridge featuring a brief piano solo and subtle string accents.
Lyrically, neither of these songs runs as deep as Seth’s “The Ballad Of Love And Hate” or Scott’s shining solo moment, a surreal fever-dream recollection called “Hand Me Down Tune” that closes the album. But the words fit precisely in the pocket of the songs. At just under three minutes each, “Die Die Die” and “Will You Return” are perfect snapshots of pure pop. Hits, they used to be called.
Interestingly, Scott mentions those two songs when I suggest that the band’s writing has grown more ambitious as its members have matured. I respond that such tunes seem a natural outgrowth of what the Avetts have been doing all along, which he accepts: “It’s not like it’s out of character at all for us.”
In fact, my comment about songwriting ambition was referring to two other tracks on Emotionalism, “Salina” and “Pretty Girl From Chile”, which sit back-to-back right in the middle of the record. Both are multiple-part constructions, perhaps more like suites than songs.
“Salina” begins as a relatively simple geographical-roll-call ballad (name-checking the Kansas town of its title as well as Cleveland, Indianapolis, Poughkeepsie, and the band’s Carolina home). A pregnant pause one minute into the song signals a significant shift in rhythm for the following minute; then it’s back to the original tempo, before the song closes with an instrumental interlude featuring cello and piano that borders on classical music.
“Pretty Girl From Chile” is perhaps even more far-fetched, though via very different elements. At first it seems a fairly straightforward new entry in the Avetts’ ever-expanding catalogue of “Pretty Girl” songs (past discs have included “Pretty Girl From Matthews”, “Pretty Girl From Feltre”, “Pretty Girl From Raleigh” and “Pretty Girl At The Airport”, to name a few). Two minutes in, there’s a sudden shift to a Latin beat and confessional lyrics about a woman named Gabriela; next, a snippet of a voice-mail message from said Gabriela; and finally, a full-on hard-rock assault for the last 60-odd seconds, complete with electric bass and guitar and crashing drums and cymbals.
It’s the first time the Avetts have recorded like that since the days of Nemo; a cursory listen to a few songs from an obscure EP of their old band proves to be strikingly similar it its primal aggression. Not that the “Chile” coda is likely to usher in a new era of Avetts hardcore.
“You spend so much time with so much heavier music, and at some point it becomes like an exhalation, a very refreshing thing and a calming thing, for all of that racket to subside and for something clear and pretty to come through,” Seth suggests. “Not that we’re exactly very pretty — but we try real hard to be.”
That their initial musical forays were a far cry from the acoustic approach of their present band simply speaks to the hard rock that was all the rage in their most impressionable years. When I mention to Scott that many of the acts he and Seth have frequently cited as influences — Alice In Chains, Blind Melon, Faith No More — are bands I can’t stand, he laughs, and suggests it’s perhaps at least partly a generational thing.