Album Review: Magpie and the Dandelion by The Avett Brothers
Fairly Good, Based on 12 Critics
American Songwriter - 80 Based on rating 4/5
What do the Avett Brothers have in common with Kanye West? Most people would probably say not much. Their styles of music are obviously wildly different, their personalities are at the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum, and the last time I checked the Avett’s aren’t dating a member of the Kardashian clan. However, take a closer look at the liner notes for the Avett’s latest effort, Magpie and the Dandelion and their main similarity is easy to see.
"I've got somethin' to say/But it's all vanity," sings Scott Avett on "Vanity. " While that may be the case in another context, it's certainly not true of any of the 11 songs on this outstanding release. Having been around long enough to know what works and what doesn't—in songwriting as in personal relations—North Carolina's Avett Brothers have filled Magpie and the Dandelion with taut, unaffected verses that dredge the past, weigh damage against possibility, and seek emergence through selflessness and emotional responsibility.
Like on previous records The Carpenter and I and Love and You, The Avett Brothers open Magpie and the Dandelion with a song about moving. A song about pulling up stakes, heading out on the road, and trying to find your place. “I was taught to live an open-ended life, and never trap myself in nothin’,” the brothers sing. With the new record, their eighth full-length, The Avett Brothers pick up almost right where they left off with The Carpenter, traveling just a little ways down the road.
Recorded at the same sessions that produced 2012's The Carpenter, 2013's Magpie and the Dandelion doesn't play like leftovers, which is to the credit of both the Avett Brothers and their producer Rick Rubin. Magpie and the Dandelion consciously evokes past Americana, stretching back beyond the Band but anchored there, often incorporating a harder-rocking edge reminiscent of former Rubin patrons Black Crowes. The key to appreciating the Avett Brothers is to realize they see themselves as heirs to this tradition, happy to accentuate their rustic roots with banjos and weary harmonies because they suggest authenticity.
It was only a year ago that the Avetts released The Carpenter, an overall dark, brooding collection that deliberately pushed the group's emotionally-charged sound to its extremes. The 11 tracks on Magpie and the Dandelion were recorded during the same Rick Rubin-produced sessions, and now stand as a well-timed response to those that found The Carpenter too weighty for its own good. Infectious country rocker "Open Ended Life" immediately sends that message, establishing a theme of hope that runs throughout the album.
The Avett Brothers' eighth LP came out of the same Rick Rubin-helmed sessions that produced last year's The Carpenter, on which they deepened their mix of rootsy authenticity and pop polish. More hard-bitten and somberly reflective, Magpie exposes lyrics that tilt into hokey romanticism. But the craft is automatic, whether on the bluegrass-fed Weezerian rocker "Another Is Waiting" or the acoustic weeper "Apart From Me." Rubin's influence shines on "Vanity," a song about ambition and self-doubt, where rumbling power chords light a fire under piano-ballad Sturm und Drang — Elton John grandeur with a Paul Westerberg rasp.
Most of the songs on the Avett Brothers' eighth album were recorded in the same sessions as last year's The Carpenter. And some should have remained off-cuts: Morning Song, which gushes with self-help sentiment; Never Been Alive, a plodding piano waltz equating being in a band with helping others; Bring Your Love to Me, yet another song about "trying to help", which at least has a crystal-sharp banjo line to cut through its mawkishness. Their recognition of pop's ability to articulate its listeners' feelings, boost morale and offer guidance is the best and worst thing about them: they come across as honest and unaffected, but also self-regarding in their homespun wisdom, and far too quick with a cliche.
Magpie and the Dandelion, the Avett Brothers' eighth album, and their third under the aegis of super-producer Rick Rubin, is the direct counterpart to 2012's The Carpenter, recorded during the same sessions and boasting a similar roots-pop sound. An exercise in “youthful wonder,” according to the press release, Magpie engages in a stagy thematic contrast with its predecessor, which frequently meditated on aging and mortality. Unfortunately, while the same functioning parts appear on both releases (twined banjo and guitar lines, stomps, strings, and Beatles-esque piano melodies), the new album finds the brothers' once-sturdy songcraft turning clunky.
The new Avett Brothers album kicks off with “Open-Ended Life”, a knockout country rocker that features Scott Avett’s banjo burples, Seth Avett’s twang-guitar blang sounding straight out of Uncle Tupelo’s basement, a harmonica that blows in like a holdover from the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and a zippy fiddle coda that anchors a rousing final minute. However, if such a barnburning opener gets anyone’s hopes up that the Avetts have made their countrified Midnight Ramble album, the rest of the record will cool those jets in a hurry. The other ten songs on Magpie and the Dandelion play like a linear move from last year’s The Carpenter, and for good reason: the majority of these tunes come from those same recording sessions, and nearly everything here reflects the Avetts’ songwriting instincts of late to slow things down to a crawl.
Since their 2009 breakout album, I And Love And You, The Avett Brothers have been working with superstar producer Rick Rubin. Despite being one of the most sought after producers today, many of the Avetts’ early fans have been disappointed with the glistening sheen that Rubin has used to glaze over the band’s endearingly imperfect sound, a facet that was once charming when they were folk’s best kept secret. Now three albums into their time with Rubin, this issue remains, albeit the diehard hold-outs are drowned out by ever-growing legions of new fans — their last effort, The Carpenter, peaked at No.
There’s no shortage of reasons why the Avett Brothers have become the darlings of the Americana crowd, and every one of them is evident on this, the band’s latest superb offering. The fact that it’s essentially a set of outtakes (these were songs originally recorded for the Avetts’ last album, 2012’s The Carpenter, but for whatever reason, failed to make the cut) makes this even more impressive… and, for that matter, all the more essential as well. Most artists would kill to have secondary material half this good, but the fact that the Avetts can take a batch of leftover tracks and repurpose them as such an exceptional album reflects the high bar they always attain.
opinion byADAM OFFITZER The best bands of our generation have a tendency to wait years between albums, making each release a monumental “event. ” Arcade Fire, Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem and Vampire Weekend have become known for making a splash with album roll-outs, touring the country, then going MIA for two or three years before coming out of hibernation to surprise us again. That’s all well and good – it’s only logical that the repetitive cycle of long tours and endless interviews would result in a well-deserved break for the bands who work so hard to release brilliant, masterfully crafted albums.