North Carolina trio The Avett Brothers have always had one foot planted firmly in the world of traditional folk and bluegrass. But Mignonette is a slight departure from that tradition, in that its breathtakingly beautiful ballads are inspired by late-19th-century cannibalism on the high seas. Yes, a first in any genre. (Well, there was that Buoys ditty, “Timothy,” but that was about cannibalism when you’re trapped in a mine shaft—and that’s just completely different.)
The true story anchoring this inspiring, heartbreaking album is one of a British crew whose yacht, the Mignonette, was lost in a storm off the coast of Africa in 1884. Four survivors escaped in a tiny boat with no food or water and—after being stranded for 19 days—ate the weakest member of their party. Upon being rescued, one guilt-wracked crew member confessed to the group’s desperate act, revealing the truth even when it meant they’d all be executed. So—long story short—the Avetts wanted to capture not only the tragedy of this twisted tale, but the unshakeable honesty of its protagonist. And with one of the best Americana records this year, they do just that. Hitting passionate, rough-edged Band-style harmonies, and grooving, at times, with James Brown precision (in a bluegrass context of course), Mignonette is 74 minutes of joy, sorrow, regret and optimism.
The usual acoustic instruments are applied here (banjo, git-fiddle, string bass, cello, etc.) but they’re used to their maximum effectiveness beneath unforgettable melodies and a raw, energetic production the best rock records would envy (the amplification of the vocals alone can make your hair stand on end). Some considered Nirvana an angst-laden, punk/metal-filtered reincarnation of The Beatles and, in a similar way, The Avett Brothers bring an impressive pop sensibility and intensity to the American Folk Tradition.