THE AVETT BROTHERS: COUNTRY WAS (2002)
1) Pretty Girl From Matthews; 2) Jenny And The Summer Day; 3) A Lot Of Moving; 4) November Blue; 5) My Losing Bet; 6) Beside The Yellow Line; 7) Old Wyom; 8) Closing Night.
Country Was sounds not a wee bit different from the Bros. self-titled water-testing, but is nevertheless a huge improvement, as they keep pumping all of their resources into the songwriting. As much as there is acoustic guitar, banjo, and Southern-style vocals on the album, Country Was decidedly sounds more like a pop sort of thing recorded by bluegrass-trained artists rather than vice versa — the chord changes, the lyrics, the overall atmosphere all show that this banjo sound is to the Avetts what the country-rock shift used to be to the Byrds: an attempt to (a) be different and (b) merge the archaic and the innovative in one big friendly synthesis.
Take 'Jenny And The Summer Day', for instance, with its slightly Britpoppy electric piano backing (think Small Faces circa Ogden's Nut or something), slightly psychedelic slow-down pauses at the end of each verse, and the strained, but fun falsetto on the bridge. The rest of the instrumentation, as well as the Bros.' still limited vocal skills, may make you wish the song were donated to a more skillful arranging / performing outfit, but then the extra skill could also make it lose its individuality, and the Avetts do care about individuality. Either way, it's a lovely, uplifting bit of music, well deserving of having a summer day reference in the title.
'Pretty Girl From Matthews', initiating a lengthy run of all those other Avett Bros. songs about 'Pretty Girls', is decidedly more traditional-folk oriented, but it still mixes together an old-timey melody for the verses and a newer-timey melody for the chorus, just as it mixes lines like "I'll see you on the good Lord's shores" with "My saviour lives in telephones". If not a masterpiece per se, it is still a fine, soft-ass-kicking lead-in number, and the Bros. still continue to use it as a show-opener fairly often.
Speaking of lyrics, the Avetts' approach is extremely intelligent — somehow, they manage to avoid both the temptation of simply falling back on country/folk clichés and the post-modern curse of wedging late-20th-century intellectual-impressionistic garbage inside old structures (an art that used to be fun but then quickly degraded into lame posturing). They just sing lots and lots of happy/sad love tunes as well as an occasional freedom-rider tune or two — with simple messages, but succeeding in finding enough quirky twists and turns of phrases to not come across as either banal revivalists or pretentious neo-beatniks. No idea if Johnny Cash ever got wind of them before his death in 2003, but I'm pretty sure the MIB would definitely appreciate.
Apart from a couple lesser tunes at the end, just about everything is catchy and nice, the highlights being the first two songs as well as the fast-moving 'November Blue' and the ballad 'My Losing Bet'. Not that everything encompasses a lot: with eight songs clocking in at under thirty minutes, the album's over in a flash; but then again, there is only so much banjo pluckin' that a non-Alabama-reared mind can stand, and, in a way, this is definitely preferable over the longish records that the soon-to-be-confident Bros. would eventually start churning out. Modesty, brevity, intelligence, nicety all win to yearn this a thumbs up despite the obvious anti-odds.
Check "Country Was" (MP3) on Amazon