Last summer when I saw the Avett Brothers at the Newport Folk Festival, they were a charming, energetic, ragtag bunch of guys dressed in white shirts and vests with skinny black ties. This summer, at the same venue, albeit on a larger stage, they had been cleaned up, buffed up, and one of the brothers was wearing a leather vest with no shirt, and sporting a bandana. That, my friends, is what a major label deal will do for you.
The Avett Brothers have not only gotten themselves signed to major international megalith Sony, their debut album for the label, I and Love and You, was produced by the top honcho, the big dog, Rick Rubin himself. It’s the dream, right? Not so much. How exactly does an acoustic band playing Americana music make a bloated album? First of all, you include 13 tracks. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, there are very few artists that I want to hear that for that long at one sitting. The vast majority just don’t have that much to say, and the Avett Brothers are no exception. Maybe I’ve got ADD or just plain old short attention span, but more than 40, or 45 minutes at the outside is too damn long for an album. I’ve got a life to live, you know — such as it is.
I guess the reason I seem a little angry about this is because the title track, which has been widely available for several months, holds so much promise. “I and Love and You” is a great song which the band and their producer have wisely chosen to be the leadoff track for the album. The problem is that nothing remotely its equal follows. If you’re going to set the bar that high, it’s likely to piss people off when you fail to reach it again.
None of the above is to say that this album is not without its charms. Rootsy songs like “January Wedding” find the band closing in on its massive promise. It seems like it would have been such an easy task to edit the album down to more manageable ten good songs, and that would have been an improvement on every level. “Kick Drum Heart” is another fun song, and a hoot when they do it live. The bottom line though is that the songwriting is simply not good enough here to sustain a 13-track album. Rick Rubin, you’re supposed to be the expert on choosing songs. What happened?
I would never want to root for a band to lose their deal, especially a band that I have appreciated as much as the Avett Brothers. For me though, they just don’t belong on Sony Records with Rick Rubin producing. There are a number of strong indie labels that would welcome this band, and plenty of producers willing to help them create a more concise statement of musical purpose. Of course if this album fails to meet commercial expectations, Sony will be bidding the Avett Brothers adieu as they have so many other artists in recent years, building a career no longer being a major label option.