Avett Brothers – Magpie & the Dandelion
It’s not the 70’s. Led Zeppelin and Chicago are not putting out their first three albums in the first two years of their recording career. Today, artists take their time producing and recording albums, sometimes taking years to do so. That makes the Avett Brothers’ release of their newest album, only thirteen months removed from the release of The Carpenter, all the more impressive.
That being said, perhaps it is of equal importance to note that the songs on Magpie and the Dandelion were largely written and recorded during the Rick Rubin-produced sessions for The Carpenter. Looking at Magpie as a companion piece to Carpenter, it is easy to view this as an album of castoffs, songs that weren’t good enough to make Carpenter. But taken on its own, Magpie is a satisfying album, though perhaps not as satisfying as 2007’s Emotionalism, largely considered the band’s apex.
Magpie continues the Avett’s relationship with famed producer Rick Rubin, who began working with the band prior to the release of their breakout 2009 album I and Love and You. It also continues the band’s progression from the ragged, energetic, backwoods bluegrass band of their early albums to the more melodic, somber, piano-ballad driven songs that have shaped their their past three records.
For many fans, this is a shame, and maybe it would be if so many of the songs weren’t crafted so well. Magpie’s opener, the kinetic “Open Ended Life”, begins with ringing electric guitar chords, something that the band has been slowly incorporating into its sound, before turning into a rousing country hoedown (or hootenanny?), complete with harmonica and a fiddle solo. It’s an album highlight. That energy is also present on the album’s first single, “Another Is Waiting’, in which brother Seth and Scott Avett trade off vocals in their signature fashion. Their harmonies, long a feature of their albums, are as present as ever here, and in fine form. “Morning Song” and “Apart From Me” sound like they would have been right at home on the band’s 2008 The Second Gleam EP. The delicate acoustic guitar lines and vocal harmonies on these tracks are gorgeous. For fans worried that Scott’s banjo would become less-featured as the band has “matured,” “Skin and Bones” features a very prominent banjo part that contrasts nicely with the shimmering, gorgeous organ line that lifts the second half of the song.
In addition,“Good to You” seems to be a special song for the band; it features bass player Bob Crawford on vocals for a verse and the song is about being on the road and missing out on family life. Crawford’s role in the song is significantly enhanced when you remember that his daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The song, another saccharine piano ballad, is sort of cheesy, but it’s a sweet sentiment that just simply doesn’t (or rather, can’t) resonate with me, a 20-year old. Given the context, the song works.
However, not everything on this album works. “Vanity” starts nicely enough, with Seth’s voice soaring over piano chords before Scott comes crashing in over drums. The song soon gives way to a strange fuzzed-out guitar riff before returning to the original form of the song. It’s nice to see the band stepping out of their comfort zone, but as with “Paul Newman vs. the Demons” on The Carpenter, this one feels a little misguided.
Many fans were excited to hear about the inclusion of “Souls Like the Wheels”, a beautiful Seth Avett solo piece from The Second Gleam EP, but the band chose to include a live version as opposed to a reworked studio cut. It’s quite jarring to hear whoops and hollers and “We love you, Seth!” in between a gorgeously-produced studio album. Not the best decision by the band, regardless of how good the song is.
It’s quite easy view this album as a companion to The Carpenter: the songs came from the same sessions, but whereas The Carpenter was a somber meditation on life and death, Magpie is much more celebratory and upbeat. The album locks into a midtempo piano groove for difficult lengths at a time, but the songs are mostly quality, well-produced, and extremely well-performed. And while the clamor to part ways with Rick Rubin surely exists, it’s hard to deny the results he’s gotten from a band that definitely deserves all the critical and commercial accolades they’ve garnered over the past few years. If Magpie is the end of the Rubin era for the Avetts, then it’s a good bookend to it.
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