“‘Magpie and the Dandelion’ is full of more of the same overwrought balladry that flows in the empty spaces between country, folk rock and Americana that The Avett Brothers have reigned over for a decade.”
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Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
Remember when The Avett Brothers were an exciting band to listen to? Back when you didn’t know if they were going to play a rousing hoedown or a country folk ballad with equal parts emotion and intelligence?
Shortly after the release of this past year’s mixed bag, “The Carpenter,” The Avett Brothers announced another album from the same recording sessions with producer/guru Rick Rubin. For long-time fans, this was a ray of hope — maybe the band had divided its material and was planning a rousing romp of an album after the frustratingly conservative “The Carpenter,” and after the album’s opening riff from Scott Avett’s electric (!) guitar, there’s optimism. It doesn’t take too long for the band to settle down into an old familiar rut.
“Magpie and the Dandelion” is full of more of the same overwrought balladry that flows in the empty spaces between country, folk rock and Americana that The Avett Brothers have reigned over for a decade. Eight albums in, the band’s sound is still distinctive and unique, borrowing from Los Angeles, Nashville and its home state, North Carolina. Even though the band traded in its stand-up bass for a cello three albums ago for “I and Love and You,” any bluegrass influences here are practically invisible, save for a few tentative sprinklings of banjo.
The Avett Brothers is an impressively versatile band that can be just as skilled at writing a barn-raising bluegrass stomp as it is an emotional heartstring-puller, but what makes it compelling in both categories is the same raw energy that is so noticeably absent from “Magpie and the Dandelion.” Neither sibling strains beyond a comfortable singing voice, and even the harmonies that make up the band’s core seem uninspired and bland.
Thematically, The Avett Brothers seem especially concerned with fatherhood, and while being a parent is a noble endeavor, it generally does not make for great musical inspiration, which leaves mid-album ballads such as “Good To You” and “Bring Your Love To Me” full of stale platitudes.
Even so, this isn’t to say that this album is completely devoid of signs of life. “Morning Song” shows that The Avett Brothers still haven’t lost the ability to write a compelling melody, and “Another Is Waiting” is a neat slice of Americana pop.
It can be easy to forget that once upon a time, these Carolina boys were some of the real forerunners of the Americana revival. It’s possible that holding back on the stompy banjo-powered tunes is an attempt to avoid comparisons to Mumford and Sons and their dustpop contemporaries (even though “A Carolina Jubilee” predates “Sigh No More” by six years), but it’s more likely that this is the sound of a band trying to prove to its audience that it’s growing up. Unfortunately, The Avett Brothers seem to think maturity comes at the cost of creativity.
“Magpie and the Dandelion” buries its most adventurous track at the end of the album. The Ecclesiastes-inspired “Vanity” is a welcome breath of fresh air, as both brothers take turns at the microphone worrying about altruism before the song spirals into a surprisingly heavy piano riff, marking a bright spot of color on an otherwise beige album.
It’s sad to think the fans who fell in love with imaginative, bursting songs — such as “Colorshow” or “Murder In the City” or, hell, all of “Emotionalism” — are realizing that this directional shift is here to stay. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame that what was once such an exciting, passionate band has fallen into complacency.