Up, Up and …?
Brothers Scott and Seth Avett announced the release of Magpie and The Dandelion, their follow-up to 2012’s The Carpenter, from the main stage at this summer’s Newport Folk Festival. Things have been going uphill for the hard-touring Avetts for the last few years, culminating in Billboard Top 200 chartings, a Grammy nod for Best Americana Album of 2012 and a performance with Bob Dylan and Mumford and Sons. Written simultaneously during the recording of The Carpenter, Magpie, also produced by Rick Rubin (Run-D.M.C., Tom Petty, Black Sabbath, Johnny Cash) was inspired by the “zone” the Avetts found themselves in while collaborating with the legendary producer.
But Magpie, unlike The Carpenter, feels less inspired as a whole. Though the band sounds great and they seem to be pushing their Appalachian/folk background into new areas, the songwriting is not as consistent and pointed as it has been in the past. Magpie is supposedly named for the “youthful wonder” of magpies and dandelions, but only the first four songs embody that ideal. The record starts out with a passionate alt-country bang. “Open Ended Life,” “Morning Song” and “Never Been Alive” are three songs that typify the Avetts’ passion and energy. High harmonies, banjo, harmonica, organ, the stupendous cello of longtime band member Joe Kwon all meld into the ever-blending folk-rock soup the Avetts have been creating since their independent touring days.
The official single, “Another Is Waiting,” is catchy and cool (though not as powerful as “Open Ended Life”), but after that, the record starts a long leveling out into waltzy lilting ballads that sound a bit jaded and self-obsessive. “Skin and Bones” seems to find the brothers second-guessing their own success with lines like “It gives but it doesn’t match how much it takes,” “A lifelong curse on your own last name,” and “I lived it, but now I’m wanting out.”
Not that the Avetts can’t do a great ballad or that misery and self-reflection don’t have their time-honored place in music. But from track five on, one wonders if they got caught up in the moment and should have cut this off or added the first four tracks to Carpenter. The Avetts’ uphill journey has seen the landscape and the soundscape change from raucous, sweaty, acoustic festival shows to main stages, big producers, late night talk show spots, real instruments and clean clothes. That works as long as the strength of the songwriting and the core identity of the band remain true. The first half of Magpie and The Dandelion finds the North Carolina natives climbing full-steam like they always have. Unfortunately, the other half sputters.