THE AVETT BROTHERS: THE GLEAM / THE SECOND GLEAM (2006 / 2008)
1) Sanguine; 2) When I Drink; 3) Yard Sale; 4) Backwards With Time; 5) If It’s The Beaches; 6) Find My Love; 7) Tear Down The House; 8) Murder In The City; 9) Bella Donna; 10) The Greatest Sum; 11) St. Joseph’s; 12) Souls Like The Wheels.
These are but two short EPs, six songs long each, and it would be rather luxurious to discuss each of them separately — not to mention that the titles themselves indicate a sort of coherence, as Cap’n Obvious whispers to me behind my shoulder. What is less obvious — at least, until one has actually listened to both EPs — is that, stylistically, they fit together as two pieces of a single puzzle; and what is even less obvious, but steadily moving closer and closer to a stone-set opinion of mine, is that they contain some of the brothers’ finest songwriting. In other words, do not, by all means, bypass this stuff simply because it’s in EP format. (For what it’s worth, I really prefer taking the Brothers in small doses rather than in their sixty-minute escapades).
Stylistic coherence is ensured by the generally stripped down atmosphere: yes, the Brothers are going UNPLUGGED, and by this I mean unplugging the goddamn banjo out of their collective ass and relying strictly on acoustic guitar. Well, there are some banjo parts on a couple of the tracks, just as some others contain harmonicas and fiddles, but for the most part, this is just a stern set of guitar-and-vocal songs, with nothing else in between the listener, the bearded trend-fighters, and whoever is there in charge of the musical duties in the extraterrestrial sphere.
And it is not always like this, but usually the Brothers succeed when they just hang their heart out there to cry and dry, and it works. ‘Sanguine’, opening the proceedings, may be snuffed at for being such a Dylan rip-off (‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ certainly comes to mind), but the seasoned listener should be wise enough to appreciate it as a respectable variation rather than a blatant steal. The Brothers truly start to weave their web of empathy starting with ‘When I Drink’, such an idealistic, child-like ode to self-improvement that it is hardly possible not to want to pat each of them on the shoulder once it’s over. ‘Backwards With Time’ is a terrific folksy singalong that also finds the wisdom to ask the question “are we losing the fight, are we growing backwards with time?” which must be quite relevant for every remaining intelligent person on the planet (not that I am implying that intelligent people should be obliged to love the song because of that, it’s just that the song speaks to me on several levels at once). Conversely, ‘If It’s The Beaches’ is low on (also Dylanesque) vocals, but nicely incorporates both Spanish (guitar) and Jewish (fiddle) motives in its main melody.
Perhaps the ultimate test result of whether you are ready to enjoy The Gleam, or, in fact, acknowledge the Avetts at all, depends on whether the near-crooning falsetto chorus of ‘Find My Love’ will be deemed «gorgeous» or «sickening». My bet’s on «homebrewn gorgeous» — not the kind of aching beauty one finds in the work of sincere professionals, but the kind of clumsy beauty one may find in the first attempts of a little kid who really believes in beauty as such. In other words, not enough to professionally squeeze out a tear, but definitely enough to want to play this out loud to everyone in sight, without blushing.
The Second Gleam, recorded two years later, is the Brothers’ tender farewell to Ramseur Records, before moving on to bigger things. The songs are slightly more complex, and thus, paradoxically (or not), slightly less involving; still, the closing ‘Souls Like The Wheels’, on which Seth begs the unknown to “let me go, let me go” with all the gallantry of a medieval minstrel, is another pleasant, less «affected» variant of the same homebrewn gorgeousness, and the other songs are at least modestly catchy.
Oh yes, continuing the analogies, ‘Murder In The City’ quite distinctly shifts the veneration from Bob Dylan to Paul Simon. It’s been a long, long time since two guys equipped with nothing but acoustic guitars and voices last managed to make heavenly music... and that time is not over yet, since, for all its worth, The Gleam(s) do not, and do not even want to, compete with the depth and passion of its influences. But it manages to build up on them, and, in a way, it’s got a much harder task to perform: reaffirm the moral ideals that, today, seem so much more distant and, well, ideal than they must have seemed to the affected fans of Dylan, Simon and company fifty years ago. Way to go, Bros! Thumbs up for all the honest work.