THE AVETT BROTHERS: THE AVETT BROTHERS (2000)
1) Kind Of In Love With You; 2) My Lady And The Mountain; 3) Those Green Eyes; 4) Feb. 20, 2000; 5) Let Myself Live; 6) I Love You Still.
What happens, usually, when you take one guy with a guitar and one guy with a banjo? The standard answer is that you just don't, because there is a very high probability that they will start churning out terrible covers of old Bill Monroe material; «Southern spirit» is already a dubious concept to begin with, but «synthesized simulated Southern spirit» is something else. It must be a very specific audience that consistently listens to modern bluegrass, and I am not very much interested in understanding its specificity.
Brothers Seth and Scott Avett, however, are a curious exception. Right from the very start (and, actually, they both began playing in amateur college rock bands before going acoustic), they seem to have set their sights on taking the essence of bluegrass and making it palatable for the general customer as well. This short EP (just six songs), marking the start of their rather laborious career, is merely a taste of things to come, but the Avetts' mission is already transparent.
First, the bad points. The brothers are neither great instrumentalists nor, to put it mildly, competent singers. Of course, they know how to play their instruments, but probably they don't spend too much time practicing them: banjo virtuosity can really be intoxicating in the right hands, and these aren't the right hands. As for the vocals, they aren't particularly strong or particularly soulful, and they strain seriously on the prolonged notes (sometimes, when they are duetting, this comes across as quite a painful experience). And, of course, if you lack virtuoso technique with the guitar and the banjo, yet still insist on recording an album that has nothing but guitar and banjo (a little primitive piano, occasionally), this also contributes to the risk.
The good point is that the brothers place their bets on songwriting, and come up with stuff that is interesting, if not altogether fascinating. These are not simply traditional folkie melodies set to new sets of lyrics (although the lyrics are new). Almost each song incorporates an individualistic riff ('Kind Of In Love With You' and 'Those Green Eyes' are the most noticeable), and even if they are not doing much with the formula, they tweak it just enough to convince me, and others, perhaps, that there might still be a small pop-hook deposit within the bluegrass genre waiting to be mined.
It also takes gall, I think, to set the sights high and still come out so straight-faced about it: the Bros.' songs are personal and sentimental with not a whiff of irony — in fact, when 'I Love You Still' starts wrapping things up, its sound is downright pathetic (in the neutral sense of the word, not derogatory). So it is for the better, perhaps, that the vocal technique leaves a lot to be desired: patented Nashville singing would probably just elevate Pathos to Bathos.
Overall, though, this first EP is just a first EP, a self-released, long out-of-print, tentative step into the world of creative songwriting. The Avett Bros. «musical philosophy» is all here already, but the execution is flimsy; love 'em or hate 'em, this is not yet the proper place to deposit one's bouquets of gardenias or bundles of dried bear scat.