The Avett Brothers are on their way to becoming one of today’s best folk groups, after earning their stripes as a tear-the-walls-down fratboy bluegrass party band. They fit into a long line of brother harmony acts (Monroes, Louvins, Blue Sky Boys), but play by none of their rules. Aside from the opening notes on The Carpenter—a lick so slick it could have been played by Doc Watson or Clarence White—bluegrass should barely even be a talking point anymore.
The album starts with “The Once And Future Carpenter,” the tale of a rambling laborer who moves from Dallas to Detroit. The story hinges on a minor chord the Avetts learned from The Beatles (one of the sort never heard in a proper bluegrass song), and after a big, billowing, send-off bridge at the end, the song falls apart with piano trickles and a few random drum kicks. (It’s a pretty forceful beginning, especially compared to the cloying balladry “I And Love And You,” the kick-off to the group’s last record.)
On The Carpenter, their second Rick Rubin-produced album, the brothers have dropped some of the folksy optimism and are drawn to darker themes. Compare the excessively winsome “January Wedding” from I And Love And You to the familial perspective of “Live And Die” or “A Father’s First Spring,” which opens with the kind of cool instrumental bit that Van Morrison might have written in his Veedon Fleece prime. Mortality is a greater theme here for the brothers. “Now I’ve got to take to the sky / And I’ll tell you what that means for you and I / If I die it’s for you,” Scott Avett sings to his daughter on “A Father’s First Spring.”
Rubin’s higher-fidelity influence doesn’t just mean nicer microphones. The arrangements are tighter and more thoughtful on The Carpenter. “Through My Prayers,” which addresses a departed family member, is only a few degrees away from Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz, which also imbues folk music with a contained grandiosity and classical temperament.
What seems so odd next to “Through My Prayers” and “A Father’s First Spring,” though, is the big crunchy guitar solo on the Elton John piano rocker, “Pretty Girl From Michigan,” and the attempt at sludgy grunge on “Paul Newman Vs. The Demons.” The Avett Brothers can’t seem to decide whether they want to be a North Carolina roots act or a big rock group.
And maybe they don’t have to. While a magnum opus would be compelling, The Carpenter’s slight inward turn and few great songs may be enough for now.