“Magpie and the Dandelion” by The Avett Brothers
“If you think about a Magpie, it’s a bird from the crow family. You can see them everywhere, and they’ve got this strange grace. And, we all know what a dandelion is. It reminds you of being a kid and watching a flower come apart on a summer day. There’s a youthful wonder in that. Those kinds of feelings live and breathe inside this album.” —from an open letter written from The Avett Brothers in regards to “Magpie and the Dandelion”
Most of songs on “Magpie and the Dandelion” are lyrically poignant and musically engaging. With soft, rolling gentleness, some electric edginess tossed in here and there, from song to song, one can’t help but pick up on a rather somber, ever wiser and more road weary side to these guys, seemingly as a result of their ever rising popularity, constant touring and personal sacrifices they’ve had to bear as a result of obtaining their Grammy Award winning status. Produced by Rick Rubin, as was “I and Love and You” in 2009, and “The Carpenter” in 2012, it is interesting to note that “Magpie and the Dandelion”, released October 15th, is comprised of songs that were written at the same time as the ones used on “The Carpenter”, which came out only thirteen months ago.
This is apparent from the first song, “Open Ended Life”. With some rather stark, revealing lyrics, this song does attest to the honesty in their music that has always been a draw for these guys. “I spent my whole life talking to convince everyone that I was something else. And the part that kinda hurts is that I think it finally worked.” As in previous works, the Avett’s give off sage advisement with the chorus, “I was taught to keep an open ended life, to never trap yourself in nothing.” The tempo of this tune becomes even more upbeat, with the toe tapping style that these live music wonders are known for. This comes as a surprising contrast to the irony and somewhat bitter tone of the lyrics.
“Morning Song” brings things down a notch tempo wise, sliding in a smooth melodious tune that seems to be about letting go, heart break and yet holding out a vestige of hope. “Even though I know there’s hope in every morning song, I have to find that melody alone.” Heartache is obvious yet again, as with the crooning, “Hurts so bad. More than I expected that it would. Worse than that, it seems to be lasting just a little longer than it should.”
The tonality of “Never Been Alive” I find to be quite monotonous and droning from the get-go. Hum drum, I guess is how I would describe it. Predictable. Lyrically, as well as musically. There is a clever line or two, such as, “Money wont do the trick, but it will help, to open the doors we need it to, to help someone else.” And they are the saving grace of this tune, as otherwise it is quite forgettable.
“Another is Waiting” is quite the lyrical description of today’s media and the struggles faced by those drawn into the unhealthy and unobtainable expectations of our consumer based society. “She’s a rose, she’s a queen. But she’s staring at a magazine. In the dark, on the path, where they doctor every photograph.” Intelligently written, quite insightful and musically appealing this song is more of a pop-ish style, which I could certainly foresee doing well conventional radio wise.
We are pulled, yet again, into a more somber note with “Bring Your Love To Me.” Very benign, musically. Lyrically, however, its a different story. ” Bring your love to me. I will hold it like a dandelion. One I want to save. One I want to keep from the breeze. That follows me and no one else.” The vocals are soothing, gentle and carry that touch of whimsy that only Seth Avett can convey, which is a good thing, as the album would not suffer from the exclusion of this one otherwise.
There is an unexpected treat in “Be Good To You”, with Bob Crawford’s smooth, velvety warm, vocals singing a verse that one cannot help but relate to his young daughter’s continuing struggles with a brain tumor. “When you were born I promised that I would always be there for you. To help you feel safe and never alone, no matter what life put you through.” This song makes one’s heart melt, with the longing, pleading lyrics, containing a touch of uncertainty, “I want to be good to you. I want to be there for you. If I come home, do you still want me to?”
“Apart From Me” is another song about letting go and the reasons behind the choice. “Part from me, I would not dare take someone in love with me where I’m going.” The singer tells of how the chase of fame and fortune is not worth the heartbreak caused as a result. “And most of us out there got fooled. Cause the gold it glittered in the night. And we chased it fast like drunk buffoons. The banker lived, the artist died.”
The next track leads in with the most familiar twang of the Avett banjo. “Skin and Bones” builds up from that magnetic pull of an introduction, to a more intense, somewhat driving tempo. “It’s quick to drag you in, but hard to shake. A gift that doesn’t match what it takes. Growing stronger and loud, I’ve lived it, but now I’m wanting out.” Jaded, raw and jagged, there is a certain amount of angst in this song, heard not only musically, but lyrically as well.
“Souls Like the Wheels” first appeared on “The Gleam II”, an EP released from The Avett Brothers, primarily, Scott and Seth, in 2008. A favorite tune of mine, I must admit this version does seem an odd choice here, as its the only live recording on “Magpie and the Dandelion”. Seth Avett, however, sings this one so beautifully. His voice; gentle, emotive, enticing, as of dripping honey, oh so sweet, along with his talented guitar playing, gives the listener a powerful reminder that this is how one should hear these artists; live and unfettered by any attempts to quirk it with studio technicalities.
Disparaging and lamenting, there is a more electric, rocker-esque song here with “Vanity”. One hears the nod to Scott and Seth Avett’s beginnings in their edgier, harder more electric rock that was “Nemo” in the late 1990’s. A much darker side to these guys, Scott vocalizes well the sources of the frustration and apparent disillusionment painted by the music and the lyrics, “I’ve got something to say, but it’s all vanity, it’s all vanity. I found a tune I could play, but it’s all vanity.”
With the final song, “The Clearness is Gone”, I find, yet again, that rather one: two tempo throughout, that is so monotonous to me. Lyrically, not impressive, either. Although, there is more instrumentation throughout the tune than in previous tracks, which does give it some audible interest. It is a lovely song, just not one that I would find myself pulling up time and again. Being the last song on the album, I was left a bit wanting; anti-climatic as it were.
As I listen to this album time and again, I find myself connecting more and more to some of the songs, and skipping ones that I just don’t care for. Musically this CD is solid, as The Avett Brothers don’t disappoint in that regard or in their consistently smooth and magnetic vocals. That being said, there just isn’t the drive they seemed to have in their earlier works, such as Live at the Double Door II, with “Hard Worker” or Four Thieves Gone’s “Talk on Indolence”. I do see in the area of my brain that thinks about such things, how some of the songs from “Magpie and the Dandelion” could be taken to a whole different level when presented live, as only The Avett Brothers can do.
I wouldn’t say “Magpie and the Dandelion” is not worth the purchase, as it most assuredly is, for any Avett fan. No, I would not say I ‘love’ it, in the true sense of fan ‘love’. I would not use this album as any type of ”introduction’ to the few folks out there who have yet to hear them. There just isn’t enough diversity here, not a true example of what they can really do. Yes, these songs are important, as they tell stories that seem to parallel what they have, were and are experiencing in all walks of their lives, whether personally, professionally, emotionally and even artistically. For them to share these most personal of feelings and experiences is indeed compelling. This in itself makes “Magpie and the Dandelion” worth a listen, or two…or even three, as like me, it may take awhile for you to warm up to it.