Is a Happy Avett Brothers as Good as a Sad One?

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Credit: Devin Yalkin*
Credit: Devin Yalkin*

You have to hand it to the Avett Brothers in at least a couple of regards. Long before the likes of Noah Kahan, they set the table for the sad-Americana-boy genre, unfurling heavy-hearted songs set somewhere between the mountains and the suburbs. (They became such a brand that they were featured in Gap ads.) And to their credit, they’ve never been content to merely be another sedate balladeer act: an inclination that, as heard on The Avett Brothers, their eleventh studio record, can still reward them as much as it can trip them up.

When it comes to serenades as solemn as an Appalachian funeral — which they began perfecting with 2009’s I and Love and You, their first of many collaborations with producer Rick Rubin — the Avetts have few equals in the area of chamber-folk. Opening with wordless vocals and strings, “Never Apart” is another of their sweetly forlorn epics. Building up a head of steam over seven minutes, “Cheap Coffee” is a moving catalog of regrets, like missing a baby’s first steps, and “2020 Regret,” another song about “pissing it all away,” has their trademark elegiac soberness baked into it.

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Continuing another tradition — replacing their acoustic instruments with electric ones — the Avetts are also eager to demonstrate they’re boys who just want to have fun too. “Orion’s Belt” is a proficient rumble-seat approximation of the type of record Tom Petty would have continued to make had he not passed. But other off-ramps find them in cringe territory. “Country Kid” is a modern-hayseed take on John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” which was corny even then. (In the dubious-distinctions categories, it may also be the first pop song to mention Winnie the Pooh since Kenny Loggins’ “House at Pooh Corner.”) And if you ever wondered how a theme song for a sitcom about emo folkies might sound, the hokey “Love of a Girl” is here to serve.

Those sorts of lurches between the solemn and the silly are any band’s right. But they’re especially jarring with the Avetts, since their somber moments are ultimately their most distinctive. When they wrap things up with “We Are Loved,” the results are more cloying than usual. But for these guys, at least it confirms the importance of still being earnest.

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