Album Review: Avett Brothers, “Magpie and the Dandelion”

(Originally written for Reverb1)

Hate him or love him, Rick Rubin may never leave the Avett Brothers. Rubin took hold after the band’s strongest outing, the gritty “Emotionalism,” and traded their raw energy for a perfectly mixed shimmer that had fans pawing for pitchforks.

The fear was they were on the fast track to becoming the male Dixie Chicks. Honestly, they might have already made that jump. But thanks to Rubin’s “cut 100 use 10″ attitude towards songwriting, the Avett Brothers are back a year after “The Carpenter” with another LP of heartsick folk pop. Culled from the same recording spell that spawned “The Carpenter,” “Magpie and the Dandelion” retains its sibling’s spit-shined production but claims most of the session’s plaintive moments.

“Magpie” is a contemplative album, nose to toes. It’s mostly about letting go: “Morning Song” chronicles the lonely path to recovery after heartbreak; “Apart From Me” is on love-forsaken-for-success, one of several autobiographical tracks on the album. Lead-off “Open Ended Life” is all folk-rock ballad, complete with electric guitar and—oh boy—a harmonica solo, which might as be blown by Rick Rubin himself, if he only knew how. But even here, its surface statements about never tying yourself down belie sad realities: the pain of the life that begets that sort of attitude and its subsequent disconnectedness.

Sonically, the album is standard Avett Brothers fare—simple, yet beautiful, with a cello part for every three-chord chorus. But it has its share of weird moments, too. Incidental or not, there are two unmistakable teases that make you wonder if its supposed to be a theme, like “the Avett’s Do Classic Rock Vol 1″: “Good To You” borrows part of its central piano phrase from “Norwegian Wood” and “Never Been Alive” takes its shimmering guitar from Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.” Another odd choice (and no less hackneyed) comes halfway through “Vanity,” as its spare piano and drums wander ass first into county-fair hard-rock. It’s as if they cut it on the same dark day as “Paul Newman Vs. The Demons,” “The Carpenter”‘s biggest misstep, as is “Vanity” to “Magpie.”

There are some equal highs to the head-shaking lows. “Bring Your Love To Me” features a gorgeous banjo riff and balances perfectly between stripped down and full bodied. The live version of “Souls Like The Wheels” is pitch perfect and fits seamlessly into the tear-soaked patchwork. “Apart From Me” is classic Avett Brothers, with a lovely acoustic guitar lead and that’ll be up on tablature websites within the week.

Like “The Carpenter,” “Magpie and the Dandelion” is slick as anything on the Billboard’s country music charts right now. If you already wanted to pull Rick Rubin’s beard off, that’s unlikely to change. But the songwriting on “Magpie” render it the better of the two albums hatched from Rubin and the Avetts’ latest session. Bittersweet as it may be, it just might be as close to the Avetts of old as we may ever hear again.

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