Best Albums of 2012 Closeup: The Avett Brothers – ‘The Carpenter’

The Avett BrothersOriginally written for No Depression

“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”

This provocative quote came from Maggie Kuhn. If you’re unfamiliar, she was an activist and member of the Silver Panthers – a radical organization which organizes to seek justice for older Americans. It’s a popular quote, sure, but placed in the context of the woman who was speaking, it packs a real powerful punch. This is an intelligent, strong, dignified older woman who was speaking to an audience of older people who have already powered through life’s greatest uncertainties with their heads high. The beginning of the quote talks about looking the people you fear in the face.

The point is that fear never gets easier. And, even more than that, the truth is never easy to tell. But telling it is, indeed, important.

The Avett Brothers have built their whole career on telling the truth, with all its imperfections and unglowing, wart-strewn poky points. Somehow so magical that I can’t even begin to articulate, they’ve found a way to do this that makes you stomp and jump and twirl around like a hula-hooping hippy. Yes, their songs are downright catchy and packed with emotional urgency. So much so that, for the past couple of years, bands have been picking up banjos and guitars and cellos, trying to pour their own fluid into the mold cast by the Avetts and their band. The result has been an emergent sound that’s young and optimistic and emotional and raw.

Look more closely at most of those bands, though, and the rawness you’re staring at is about the artistic equivalent of a freshly opened box of macaroni and cheese. It’s the stuff you consume on the way to something better to do. The Avetts, meanwhile, are serving all the ingredients for something homecooked and slaved-over – something to nourish themselves as much as you, something to carry us through.

What’s more, when they sing, their voices often shake.

Though there are moments on The Carpenter where the vocals soar with utter smoothness – giving me the impression they did a number of takes to nail that element – producer Rick Rubin was right to leave in the stuttering parts. Those where their voices are less sure-footed amid difficult emotional declarations. Indeed, some of what they’re unloading here are feelings you would slave over before you mustered the will to whisper them to your most intimate friend. The uncertainty with which they share those feelings openly with all of us strangers reminds us what it is to muster courage.

To follow the metaphor set forth by their album title – it’s the dirt and sweat and trust of building something tangible from a mere idea.

There’s this other band who released one of the highest selling albums of the year doing something that struck me as a predictable facsimile of all the exquisitely honest, raw emotion the Avetts exude from their pinky nails. I think Mumford has so much more in them, so I’ll remain optimistic and wait for their next album, even as I wonder why they enjoyed so much success this time around.

Then again…

Once upon a time, I decided to learn how to play the trumpet. I’d been playing musical instruments for something like 25 years at that point – all of them with strings or keyboards. So, the trumpet seemed like a fun diversionary task for me. Something new to spark some inspiration. One of the first things my trumpet teacher had me do was to hold long tones, to get a hang of my embouchure. (For you non-woodwinds people, that’s French for “how you hold your mouth.”) I was supposed to move through all the various scales and arpeggios via whole notes. But, there was this impulse when I landed smack-dab on, say, a middle-C, to just keep doing long tones of the middle-C. I was so happy to have hit the right note, I just wanted to hear and feel the note coming out of me again and again. Of course that would not have served my development on trumpet at all, so I resisted the urge and moved along up the scale.

I tell you this little story because there is an impulse in music to repeat yourself. Once you’ve landed on the thing that strikes the chord, that gets the audience responding the way you want them to, that gets the energy in the room to a certain level, and so on – you kind of just want to recreate that. But, while there is a certain part of art which requires recreation on some level, making the same album again and again in hopes that it’ll hit people just as hard, is kind of boring if you ask me.

Yet, we hear from critics and fans all the time who complain that an artist has tried something new or gone down a different path. When, if we allow artists to be artists, we have to admit that creativity and consistency are not always friends. Consistency is for Starbucks lattes and McDonalds fries. We should leave the predictability to fast food and WalMart and let the artists lunge in whatever directions entice them. It’s those among us who run in new and different ways, who turn us on to the existence of other possibilities beyond what we can see in our immediate view.

We need them telling us the truth, even when their voices shake.

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