Given their relatively short time in the spotlight, the Avett Brothers have been around a surprisingly long time. Originally formed in 2000 as something of a non-traditional bluegrass band, the group released 5 studio albums and 4 eps before striking it big in 2009 with the ballad “I and Love and You,” off the album of the same name. Since that breakthrough, the brothers Scott and Seth Avett, as well as stand-up bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwoon, have moved towards a rootsy sound firmly planted in pop form, and on their new album The Carpenter, they seem intent on consolidating their place in popular music.
Much like the band's last few albums, The Carpenter opens without fanfare, "The Once and Future Carpenter" proving something more of a slow-burner than an explosion. Many of the Avett Brothers's songs are like this: revealing their melodies and worthy bits gradually, building upon an earworm of a melody until you're singing it in your head. This makes them quite unlike many of their sound-alike peers, namely Mumford & Sons and Of Monsters & Men, who prefer grand barnburning statements that ultimately ring hollow; this proves AB the far better band.
This is due, in part, to their aforementioned experience, particularly as a fierce live outfit who end each night with blood and sweat dripping off their strings. The Carpenter sounds like something of a refinement from a group that has spent plenty of time refining themselves, like four guys who have spent the better part of a decade together fusing their disparate thoughts into what are, ultimately, pop songs.
After so many albums, this approach works and doesn't work in about equal measure. While "Life" and lead single "Live and Die" brim with liveliness and worthy melodies, "Winter in My Heart" and "Through My Prayers" register as far too precious, relying on cutesy metaphors and tinkling instrumentation instead of interesting songwriting.
This is also an exceptionally smooth and shiny production, with very few rough edges left for the listener to notice. Where in the past songs like "Colorshow" (off of Four Thieves Gone) relied on ramshackle banjo strumming and cathartic shouts, now the Avett Brothers trade in the pure pop of "I Never Knew You," and "Pretty Girl From Michigan." This isn't a bad thing, as the band really writes spectacularly catchy tunes, meant to be heard in a theater or amphitheater. But raw spots help make the slower, folkier numbers more interesting to the ear, easier to sit through, and prove the group to be humans, not just auto-tuned voices. With the blinding sheen that producer Rick Ruben has put on everything, it can be hard to penetrate to what makes most of these songs tick.
But the good far outweighs the bad. Contrary to popular narratives, The Avett Brothers haven't gotten worse as they've grown in popularity, they've just morphed into an equally skillful pop band, blending their bluegrassish [Tyler, I know this isn't a word, but please keep it] past with the sounds of mainstream rock. And band has done so in a way that never really grows tiring, perhaps because, unlike many of their peers, they don't attack your ear; they insinuate. Maybe they've grown a little faceless, but this could be chalked up to the market starting to look and sound very much like them. On The Carpenter, they navigate it deftly.