THE AVETT BROTHERS: FOUR THIEVES GONE: THE ROBBINSVILLE SESSIONS (2006)
1) Talk On Indolence; 2) Pretty Girl From Feltre; 3) Colorshow; 4) Distraction #74; 5) 16 In July; 6) Left On Laura, Left On Lisa; 7) A Lover Like You; 8) Pretend Love; 9) Matrimony; 10) The Lowering; 11) The Fall; 12) Dancing Daze; 13) Famous Flower Of Manhattan; 14) 40 East; 15) Gimmeakiss; 16) Denouncing November Blue; 17) Four Thieves Gone.
In my little world, this is officially the Avett Brothers' masterpiece. Had this collection only been recorded in a «power pop» environment, it might have rocked the indie world to its foundation, except the indie world and bluegrass arrangements do not exactly get along, and I do not blame them — over sixty minutes of banjo-driven tunes, how cool does one need to be to stand that? On a theoretical level, the only thing worse is probably sixty minutes of bagpipes. Or sixty minutes of water pipes (if your name is Blixa Bargeld).
There are some minor changes in sound that are most welcome: pianos, with each new album, become more and more prominent, and now they also break the taboo on electric instruments, introducing loud amplified sound as a supporting means on some of the songs (e. g. the bombastic distorted guitar solo at the end of 'Colorshow'). It also seems to me, though this is a fully subjective sensation, that the playing is generally tighter and the bits of off-key singing less noticeable and jarring than before (and somehow you'd expect that from a musical outfit that's been on a non-stop touring and recording schedule for six years).
But the most important piece of news is that the brothers continue honing and refining their songwriting skills, and by the time of Four Thieves, they have clearly mutated into some of the most talented writers of their generation. The ways they subtly bridge the unbridgeable are, well, subtle, but once you cut through, you realize that the brothers, by now, are in a niche all their own, despite so superficially limited a formula. Take 'Famous Flower Of Manhattan', for instance, which first came across as a yawn-inducing, meandering ballad, then slowly sank in as a catchy, original, cleverly phrased ballad, then, with the lyrics and the story behind them consulted, emerged as a one-of-a-kind melancholic-to-optimistic ode to the idea that everything belongs in its proper place (in this particular case, as rumor has it, Regina Spektor, whom the brothers liked so much they almost wanted to abduct her from NYC, but, fortunately, reconsidered). It is one of the most interesting country vs. city clashes in recent musical history.
Filler still exists for these guys, but, unlike the preceding albums, it is now so overwhelmed with idea-riddled songs that, in any sort of review, is practically negligible. Why concentrate on boring moments at all, when there is so much fun stuff around? 'Talk On Indolence' starts off as a near-sacrilegious «bluegrass rap» before moving on to two or three more, entirely different, sections. 'Colorshow', with its piano pounding, starts out in an arrogantly minimalistic mode, the way a John Lennon or a Neil Young could easily start one of their soul-baring anthems, before adding the above-mentioned jarring guitar solo part. 'Left On Laura, Left On Lisa' slyly borrows a lick from the Beatles' 'I'm Looking Through You', perhaps unintentionally (both are written, after all, within the same folk pop idiom). 'Pretend Love', riding out of nowhere, is a frail, delicate Fifties-style waltz that could have made a fine tearjerker for Elvis or, at least, Hank Williams. 'Matrimony' is the Avetts at the top of their «bluegrass punk» powers — fast, driving, and quite funny: "My dog is loud and my dog is wild / We're too young to have a child / Can you keep the dog next week? / I'll be gone the next three".
Actually, the Bros.' sense of humor is at its best when we get to the very end: 'Four Thieves Gone' is a funny twist on 'Ten Little Indians', telling a gruesome lyrical tale of copyright infringement (so it seems) to a nursery rhyme-style melody. Compared to the real highlights, it is but a trifle, but an important one, blowing off some of the occasional bombast. Not that the bombast is in any way bothersome. There is no concept here whatsoever, no particular brand of musical philosophy, just a bunch of really open-minded Southern guys with a knack for a good melody, a good lyric, and lotsa heart and soul. We can only hope that some day some equally talented fan will want to re-record all of this with less banjo and... more cowbell? Thumbs up.
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