THE AVETT BROTHERS: MAGPIE AND THE DANDELION (2013)
1) Open-Ended Life; 2) Morning Song; 3) Never Been Alive; 4) Another Is Waiting; 5) Bring Your Love To Me; 6) Good To You; 7) Part From Me; 8) Skin And Bones; 9) Souls Like The Wheels; 10) Vanity; 11) The Clearness Is Gone.
Another album like this and the Avett Brothers may as well apply for sainthood — Scott as St. Augustin and Timothy as St. Francis, or vice versa. They have perfected their heartbreaking skills to smoothly function like an unbreakable machine, churning song after song after song that all produce the same vibe of immaculate brotherly love for all humanity, tempered with immeasurable sadness at the current state of said humanity. The only problem is, enjoying each of their subsequent albums with the same strength of faith and will is now akin to meticulously going to church every Sunday and melting in the verbal glow of your favorite preacher. You know damn well that he's already exhausted all of his topics, ideas, and original approaches to Scripture, but you just need one more «fresh» swig of cathedral morality...
To be honest, all of the tracks for Magpie And The Dandelion were recorded during the same sessions that already yielded The Carpenter — which explains why it only took them a year to follow it up. However, these are not «inferior outtakes»: it turns out that the Avetts simply decided against a double album (and I, for one, applaud that decision), postponing official release of half their output to keep the fans steady and satisfied. Unfortunately, it also complicates the life of the profane reviewer: thinking of a specific individual character for any Avett Bros. album is already a chore, and this particular one is just a Siamese twin to its predecessor. You'd have to allow a decade of development at least to understand what makes one Siamese twin distinct from the other, wouldn't you?
In terms of individual songs, everything here rules (it's the Saint Avett Brothers!) and everything here sucks (it's the fuckin' Saint Avett Brothers!). The very first song announces that "I was taught to keep an open-ended life / And never trap myself in nothin'" — one minute you are totally drawn into it, then the next minute you realize that, at the very least, they have trapped themselves well enough in that banjo sound, so how does this really work? The second song says that "even though I know there's hope in every morning song, I have to find that melody alone". Nicely stated, but how many distinct, original melodies have they actually found on this record? The third song says that "money won't do the trick" (okay) "but it will help to open the doors we need it to help someone else" (if you say so) "still we won't need it to turn things around" (somebody take a goddamn decision!) and then concludes that "I've never been alive like I am now" to one of the most limp, slow-dragging rhythms they could think of.
In short, the Avetts seem confused, and I suppose this confusion is the most interesting thing on the whole record. The brothers' usual humility saves them from becoming annoying, but their words are often disconnected from their music, and the music presents no breakthroughs since it is not supposed to. "I've got something to say / But it's all vanity / I found a tune I could play / But it's all vanity" — summarizes their attitude fairly well, since the inevitable conclusion is that it is better to say and play nothing than something, and Magpie And The Dandelion is as close a substitute for that option as it gets. (For that matter, ʽVanityʼ is actually the only song on the album that somehow stands out — it has an odd, out-of-nowhere, bombastic, quasi-progressive middle section with a heroic distorted guitar solo; maybe this is supposed to be a musical allegory for «vanity», because the interlude does sound vain. It also kicks ass, though).
«Vanity» also shows up with an unexpected live rendition of ʽSouls Like The Wheelsʼ from The Second Gleam, performed before an ecstatic audience that goes berserk every time one of the brothers starts a minimalistic solo — why else would they bother including this live take if not to let us know how much their fans care about them? But again, the song is so nice, the "let me go" chorus is so touching, and even the minimalistic solos are so acoustically pretty that it's no big problem to forget about the vanity aspect. Come to think of it, St. Augustin and St. Francis must have been pretty vain, too, or else we wouldn't be aware of their existence.
Anyway, chalk one more up for the dedicated fans — the formula still works — but if you already know what the Avetts sound like and this knowledge has not converted you, the only thing you need to know is that Magpie And The Dandelion, despite the exquisite fairy-tale-style title, sounds exactly like everything else that these lovable, but occasionally nagging, bearded prophets of «alt-country» have ever done. Personally, I enjoyed every minute of it, but it didn't exactly help me come up with any insights on any of the songs; and in the end, I will refrain from a special thumbs up as well — it might just as well simply share the one I already gave to Carpenter.
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