Inevitably, when a band signs to a major label, some fans will cry “sell out,” often citing and fearing the abandonment of certain aspects of the group’s music. Equally as inevitable, however, is the fact that good music attracts ever-growing crowds of listeners, and simply put, no musician strives to only get as high as the ceiling of an underground scene. That’s the story of the Avett Brothers. With more then ten albums behind them, their first major label release, I and Love and You (and the band) have finally found resonance with a broader listener base: an overnight success, and just a decade in the making. But what did they give up to get there, and what elements of their sound have they kept?
The answers come quickly, within the first moments of the album. The title track opens with gentle key strikes awash in the dream-like ether of a peculiarly rugged emotionalism at the very heart of the Avett Brothers. This, the single most defining element of their music is here, fully intact, and should effectively ease fears of a pop-roach infestation inherent in big label ventures. “January Wedding,” a cut that could exist anywhere in the discography of the group, follows. Scott Avett’s banjo loyally, as ever, provides counterpoint to Seth’s acoustic, as the brothers’ harmonies faithfully carry the narrative of love through its paces.
Like Hemingway put to song, “And It Spread” and “Ten Thousand Words,” exhibit the lyrical clarity of past Avett albums, with plain spoken words cutting directly to the source. The brothers sing, “I want to have friends, that I can trust, that love me for the man I’ve become, not the man I was” on “The Perfect Space.” Displaying their natural ease in story telling, this folk odyssey is easily on par with even their finest of works, “The Weight of Lies” or “Murder in the City.” Leaning heavily towards the softer side of their repertoire, I and Love and You bodes well against the temper and pace of previous releases The Gleam and The Second Gleam. However, as perhaps an inevitable side effect of a big label release, some compromise exists, and proves hard to dismiss.
Here, Scott’s banjo – a fan favorite – is no longer a foundation instrument, but rather an oddity, used only once for the amusement of the audience. Largely replacing it is a piano, a sound immediately more familiar to mainstream listeners, but equally as effective in conjuring that Avetts magic. But to anesthetize the bluegrass effect inherent in banjo play assumes too little of mainstream listeners, who may have found even greater joy in the traditional Americana sound with which so many long time Avett fans have fallen in love. The opportunity to helm a much needed infusion of American roots music into the collective consciousness of the mainstream is declined. Also missing, the crescendo of raw punkgrass energy in tunes like “Shame,” replaced instead with radio minded cuts, “Kick Drum Heart” and “Slight Figure of Speech” that possess all of the tempo, but none of the attitude. Bob Crawford earned his keep on such energetic ventures, and likewise finds his roll in I and Love and You subdued.
This is the Avett Brothers, make no mistake. The same stunning song writing exists within these thirteen songs, as in any of their previous releases. Indeed, I and Love and You will almost certainly be embraced amongst newcomers to the band, longtime fans, and everyone in between. But some fans that have been there from the beginning may find objections with this album. Perhaps not so severe as to threaten mutiny, but enough to ask, fearfully, ‘what’s next?’ For a band that often sings on the soul of a wandering man, traveling elsewhere always, there is something to be said for wandering too far from home, and getting lost. But for now, this right fine endeavor of musicality is deserving of praise, and more importantly, a semi-permanent residence in your music player of choice; a fine addition to an already impressive library of albums.