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“If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die,” sing the Avett Brothers in the banjo ballad, “The Once And Future Carpenter.” The track opens “The Carpenter,” the new album from Scott Avett, Seth Avett and bassist Bob Crawford, out today.
Coming from less talented hands, the words may sound like an empty platitude, but over the course of their career, the Avett Bros, who are joined on the album (and in concert) by cellist Joe Kwon and drummer Jacob Edwards, have shown a knack for spinning simple truths out of complicated concepts.
On 2009’s “I And Love And You,” the album that brought the Avetts into the mainstream, producer Rick Rubin provided some needed spit and polish on the band’s material and streamlined the sound found on their earlier indie releases.
On “The Carpenter,” the Brothers Avett, take the lessons they learned from Rubin, who produces again here, and retain what they liked and discard the rest. The result is an album that has a shine but is never overly glossy. Guests like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith are there to add a certain texture, not for bragging rights.
Like contemporaries Mumford & Sons, the Avett Bros. have found a new way to make acoustic instruments rock and roll with passion and intensity, while keeping the instruments’ authenticity. They also aren’t afraid to get noisy, loudly building their songs with a confidence that brims through on “Pretty Girl From Michigan,” and the irrepressibly jangly “Geraldine,” as well as the shape-shifting, psychedelic “Paul Newman Vs. The Demons.” Melodically, they are deeply rooted in folk and country, but access rock, grunge and pop with ease. They owe as much to Kurt Cobain as to Levon Helm.
Despite the often light melodies and glorious harmonies, there’s a certain gravitas to much of “The Carpenter,” as the band explores death and all his friends in its many different guises. “Through My Prayers” is a tender tearjerker that anyone who has lost someone with words left unspoken will understand all too well.
If it’s not physical death, there’s also the death that comes from heartache, as poignantly expressed in the stark “Winter In My Heart.” As the months tear off the calendar, the protagonist stays in a perpetual winter, unable to move on from a romantic loss. The music on “I Never Knew You” may be bright and sparkly, but the lyrics detail a disenchanted, heartbroken lover, who goes out “Friday night and talk(s) to anyone I can.” As he looks back on his past relationship, he realizes that his former paramour was a stranger even though he believed he was deeply in love.
It’s not all darkness on “The Carpenter.” On “A Father’s First Spring,” Scott Avett sweetly details the first blushes of fatherhood and how painful it is leave his newborn daughter. On “Paul Newman Vs. The Demons,” the group salutes the legendary actor for the exemplary way he lived his life: “Oh to be like him and walk a path/To lend a hand, do something worth a damn.” As much as the song is a paean to Newman, it’s also an exhortation to find a way to give up one’s demons. It’s the biggest stretch on the album, and its adventurous rambling doesn’t always work.
“The Carpenter” isn’t as bright as “I And Love And You,” but it has a depth of feeling that surpasses its predecessor and an understanding of life’s vicissitudes that anyone who has experienced them will appreciate for its honesty and, ultimately, hope.