THE AVETT BROTHERS: I AND LOVE AND YOU (2009)
1) I And Love And You; 2) January Wedding; 3) Head Full Of Doubt / Road Full Of Promise; 4) And It Spread; 5) The Perfect Space; 6) Ten Thousand Words; 7) Kick Drum Heart; 8) Laundry Room; 9) Ill With Want; 10) Tin Man; 11) Slight Figure Of Speech; 12) It Goes On And On; 13) Incomplete And Insecure.
By the time the Avetts were ready to appear on a major label, it was too late already: their best work had all been done. Or, at least, it was just highly unlikely that they would surpass the early consistency levels. Eight years in the business, four super-long LPs and a hundred songs behind their belts, an established, ascertained style — what could their transition to American Recordings have accomplished? What could they gain from being assigned under the wing of the legendary Rick Rubin himself?
Nothing, and Rick knew it well, so he just left them alone, the same way he did with Johnny Cash fifteen years earlier. The only thing he may have contributed was the same thing that I, too, have always wished for: «More piano, less banjo». I And Love And You softly, but steadily steers the brothers away from bluegrass and more into the direction of «common» folk-based singer-songwriting, further away from the Appalachians and ever closer to New York City, as the brothers themselves unambiguously admit on the opening title track ("we are headed north", they sing, "Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in" — okay, not quite ready for Manhattan yet).
For some, that may indicate that the brothers are surrendering their integrity; I have seen not a few indignant remarks that accused the band of moving into a sort of Ben Folds direction that, depending on the remarkee's position, either sucks per se or is simply not the kind of direction that the brothers are qualified for. Well, it is true that the record is a bit more «pop» than its predecessors; but, to tell the truth, there is only one straightforward attempt here at coming up with a truly upbeat pop tune, and it is a great attempt — 'Kick Drum Heart' is a song that certainly ranks up there with Ben Folds at his best (provided one agrees that Ben Folds is discussable in terms of best and worst; I certainly agree), and as simple as it may be, the 'heart : drum' metaphor is pretty old, but the 'heart : kick drum' certainly isn't, particularly not with the actual kick drum used creatively enough to justify the metaphor.
That and the title track, with its simple and attractive anthemic character, are the obvious highlights for me. Unfortunately, the other tunes fall somewhat short of the mark. Each sounds nice while it's on, but the hooks are smothered and splattered — somehow, this piano transition means that they are using the same, or very similar, generic chord sequences on almost every track, and not compensating them with original vocal melodies. It's all mid-tempo, steady, sincere, comforting, occasionally heartwarming, sometimes heartbreaking — but now that, with Rubin's aid, they have polished out the early day roughness and pretty much discarded all of the «punkier», iconoclastic elements that they used to have, it's back to Boreville.
So much so, in fact, that I have almost forgotten to write how touching 'Ill With Want' really is, with its "something has me, something has me..." chorus (Aching Beauty™) — and its non-trivial lyrical drive, with the protagonist accusing himself of «ugly greed» which eventually just turns out to be an unstoppable, obsessive desire to achieve rather than a simple to own. It's a little confessional gem that almost seems to have gotten lost among all those other similar songs pretending to also be confessional gems, but not quite getting there.
So, overall, I And Love And You is satisfactory, but still disappointing. It's not okay to be wearing your heart on your sleeve all the time: for one thing, the heart may get all dusty and withered up and wrinkled, for another thing, sometimes you just get tired of looking at the heart and would prefer taking a peek at the sleeve instead. And the art of pure songwriting craft suffers a setback here. It's as if they intended to try and make a new 'Imagine' out of every second song on here, but not even Lennon himself ever attempted any such feat. So, while an assured thumbs up is still guaranteed, and the new «more piano, less banjo» ideology is commendable, the Avetts have quite a long way to go to make real good use of that piano.
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