How can the Avett Brothers be so great live and their new album be so boring? Because I’ve seen them live a couple of times, in complete command of the expansive Winnipeg Folk Festival mainstage, which is no mean feat if you know the size and scope of that event. The Brothers (multi-instrumentalists and real-life siblings Scott Yancey and Timothy Seth Avett, Bob Crawford on acoustic and electric basses and vocals, and Joseph Kwan on cello) were energetic, upbeat, and infectious in performance — descriptors as far removed from this snoozer of an album as beaches are from Santa Claus.
Perhaps that’s a tad harsh. Of course Magpie and the Dandelion could be considered a kind of “afterthought album” to their 2012 release The Carpenter. All songs on Magpie and the Dandelion were recorded during The Carpenter sessions, and it seems the band just never wanted playtime with uber-producer Rick Rubin to end. Understandable, but perhaps they could have emerged with a group of songs that had more than one tempo, or maybe an unexpected chord progression here and there. But I guess not.
The album starts off with promise. “Open-Ended Life” is a decent country tune with the bluegrass trifecta of banjo, harmonica and fiddle thrown in (the last notably played by The Duhks’ Tania Elizabeth), but from there it’s all downhill into mid-tempo mediocrity. ”Morning Song” almost put me to sleep, despite its attempt at a call-and-response section in the outro, and “Never Been Alive” makes me feel like I’m not. ”Another is Waiting” picks up the pace a bit, and I admit to having its catchy chorus stuck in my head, but after that we’re right back into the inoffensive balladry of “Bring Your Love to Me” and “Good to You,” whose stepwise melody sounds like something torn from the pages of my Grade One piano repertoire book.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I need to develop my appreciation for simple melodies and chord progressions expressed at comfortable tempos, but I swear that I can and do love a good contemplative song. There’s just so many of them here, back-to-back, that I feel like any appreciation of individual qualities is lost. Ah well, this is just my opinion, and it’s all “Vanity,” anyway, isn’t it? And actually, that song’s not so bad.
Here’s a video of the Brothers performing “Morning Song” for KROQ Radio in Pasadena, CA — that hopefully hints at a little of that live energy:
Magpie and the Dandelion is available on iTunes
An afterthought album of mediocre mid-tempo tunes.