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The Avett Brothers are a musical anomaly. Taking influences that are infamously ostracized by pop radio, their “grungegrass” style is an odd, modern blend of bluegrass, folk and rock that seems to appeal to fans of any genre. However, their latest album, “I and Love and You,” finds the group collaborating with producer Rick Rubin, who is notorious for watering down artists in an attempt to make them radio-friendly; yet somehow, the boys made sure their songwriting would endure its production.
Hailing from Concord, N.C., it should be no surprise that The Avett Brothers have such a diverse sound. Founding brothers Scott and Seth Avett had been part of multiple groups ranging from hard rock to folk, until their musical tastes led them to team up with stand-up bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon to form The Avett Brothers.
One of the most appealing elements of The Avett Brothers’ sound in the past was the raw emotion conveyed through their organic sound. There was no auto-tune, no compression and their songs were laced with roaring bluegrass instrumentation.
Rubin’s attempt to lead the band to a mainstream sound may have been a successful one, but it’s hard not to feel like something is missing. Gone are the twanging banjo riffs and tin-can vocal melodies. In their place are sleek piano lines and an overly polished production style.
This isn’t to say Rubin ruined The Avett Brothers. He merely changed them. In many ways, he just extracted the bluegrass from their sound and replaced it with pop. While this is sure to create some discontent in the group’s long-time fan base, The Avett Brothers’ matured songwriting is sure to help fans quickly forgive and forget. The album, while less upbeat than past efforts, is listenable from start to finish; every track tells its own story and each is just as memorable as the last.
Scott and Seth still trade off lead vocals as they ride the line between talking and belting out unshakeable hooks. But what makes “I and Love and You” the best album of the year is its lyrical craftsmenship. Scott and Seth have always written emotional songs with provoking lyrics, but on this record they have taken their capacity to a whole new level. Every track feels conversational, as though the brothers are laying their thoughts out on the table for you to dissect. It is this adolescent simplicity in the songs’ concepts that make them so appealing. In “Laundry Room,” Scott sings, “I woke with a head full of songs/ I spent the whole day/ wrote them down, but it’s a shame/ Tonight I’ll burn the lyrics/ because every chorus was your name.”
“I and Love and You” was a business decision: The Avett Brothers needed to expose their music to the masses and jumping on board Columbia Records with Rubin was just the way to do so. Now fans just need to hope that once America has warmed up to this folk-rock act, the group will ease back into their old sound, yet continue to allow their songwriting to cultivate. Either way, once you sink your teeth into The Avett Brothers, you won’t be able to avoid coming back for seconds.