All Growed Up: Band of brothers mature on masterful major label debutIt’s hard to let go.
Of a girlfriend. Of an old hound dog. Of a tattered pair of jeans. And maybe most gut-wrenchingly of all, it’s hard to let go of your favorite heretofore unheralded band. Watching them grow from dingy clubs to cavernous ballrooms. Seeing them jump from a blurb in the local alt-weekly to the cover of a national magazine. And, finally, watching them walk all wobbly kneed and wide-eyed into the larger spotlight.
This is the plight of the Avett Brothers fan: He must keep a stiff upper lip as his heroes trek off into the great unknown mainstream.
As much as it should be about the music, the resounding, oft-repeated story-line for I and Love and You is as follows: Grassroots phenoms convert a congregation of followers with kamikaze touring and a deluge of boutique-label releases since 2001, then step up to the big microphone. A major label. A stylist. A recording studio in the surgically enhanced hills of Malibu. A mystical svengali-like producer (Rick Rubin) with globe stompers like the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers on his résumé.
The Avett Brothers (Scott and Seth, plus bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon) no longer belong solely to the indie cult. But to concentrate on the names and dollar signs and intentional pining for mass appeal is to ignore the far more important point—for the Avett Brothers to make this record took ginormous, pendulous testicles. Having conquered every Saturday night music hall and holler between Asheville and Portland, they have made a record that is not just a stab at the mainstream—it’s a harpoon through its sternum.
This is not at all a bad thing.
The Avetts could’ve made some kind of caterwauling record full of flaming banjoes, hootenannies, and throaty hollers that encapsulates their reputation-making live show. In fact, that would’ve been a pretty damn sensible move as far as introductions go. Howdy, we’re the Avett Brothers. We’re gonna hillbilly-rock you like you’ve never been hillbilly-rocked before.
Instead they’ve constructed something beautiful. An album that’s not merely loaded with ballads, it’s almost wall-to-wall epic ballads. Pianos trickle before the storm, strings ball up their fists, swells and waves of sound wash over the Avetts’ sorghum-sweet harmonies. And this is just in the first song, a goose-bump engorging title-track that could by itself inspire a legion of new fans. It’s like Rubin took everything the band does so well and pumped it full of human-growth hormone. With that kind of heartfelt Southern soul pealing from the mouths of two chiseled brothers from North Carolina who look like they should be sucking jugulars on True Blood, can the shrieking masses looking for their next pinups be far behind?
Let’s hope so. Because to lose sight of the art behind the artifice is to do The Avett Brothers a disservice. It takes true talent to pull off this kind of transition. Too many strings and it gets cheesy. Too many love songs and it gets maudlin. Too much navel gazing and the emotion gets diluted. In short, it could’ve come off like a Grizzly Bear album—but to think that is to forget that behind their good looks and gravely golden voices, Scott and Seth are hellacious songwriters. Much like Ryan Adams before the speedballs dulled his fangs, The Avett Brothers are experts in mining the heart and soul of the modern American man. Love is an obvious theme, but so is finding freedom and maturity. Their lyrics are tough yet vulnerable, insightful yet homespun, manly yet emotional. The kind of thing that makes the girls giddy and the boys envious. There’s truth here. So when they croon a line like, “Something has me acting like someone I know isn’t me, ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed,” you don’t want to gouge out your ears with piano wire.
The depth and beauty that spread all across I and Love and You will, with any luck, keep The Avett Brothers from becoming The Jonas Brothers. My initial research indicates that this is indeed possible. After playing the album for a few ladyfriends in my living room, we sat in silence as they conjured up words between sips of beer. Wow. Chills. Beautiful. Can you burn this for me?
Only after I showed them Scott and Seth’s picture did the swooning, debates over which brother was cuter and dissection of haircuts begin. As The Avett Brothers wander beyond our record collections and off on their own to find fame, this is the best we can hope for.