"I and Love and You" / The Avett Brothers
Well, I started out to make a Best Albums of 2009 list -- how Uncle E of me! -- but it just didn't feel right. Maybe that's because this is a song blog, not an album blog. Yeah, that's my excuse. Although really, it's because I felt like a phony, crowning 10 albums as "the best" when I've been so lazy -- or so stuck in my musical ways -- that I've blown off listening to most of this year's new music. (But really -- Lady Gaga? Kiss? Passion Pit? Chester French? Puh-leese.)
For the record, though, this would have been my list (note: no compilations allowed, otherwise Nick Lowe and Ray Davies would be here too):
10. Ready for the Flood -- Mark Olson & Gary Louris
9. Oh Tall Tree in the Ear -- Roman Candle
8. Veckatimest -- Grizzly Bear
7. Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane -- Elvis Costello
6. Goodnight Oslo -- Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3
5. Monsters of Folk -- Monsters of Folk
4. Hazards of Love -- The Decemberists
3. One Fast Move or I'm Gone -- Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard
2. I and Love and You -- The Avett Brothers
1. Jaggedland -- Marshall Crenshaw
For most of these, just click on the titles to jump to my original posts about each one. Okay, somehow I missed blogging about the Mark Olson/Gary Louris album, which baffles me -- I even saw them in concert, and loved them (not quite a Jayhawks reunion, but the next best thing). I promise I'll remedy that omission in the New Year.
I haven't had a chance yet to write about my #2 record, either. In fact I just learned about these guys a couple weeks ago (thank you, Lennart!), but I and Love and You leapfrogged immediately to the top. It reminds me of Roman Candle and the Wood Brothers -- bluegrass-tinged rock with an intoxicating love of melody (hurray for melody!) and brothers singing close vocal harmonies. Yes, the North-Carolina-based Avett Brothers -- Seth and Scott -- really are brothers, which always adds a certain something for me. (They're joined by stand-up bassist Bob Crawford and, more recently, cellist Jason Kwon.) Amazingly, this is their eleventh album, and even now, the Major Buzz around these guys seems generated by the fact that they're producer Rick Rubin's latest "find." But hey, Rubin's got a great ear, and in this case his instincts are right on target.
The multi-talented Avetts weave in so many styles, from gospel to punk to art rock, that any track I picked to write about would probably misrepresent their "sound." The title track, which comes first on the album, is as good a place to start as any, though -- pensive, acoustic, with a melancholy, meditative tempo (don't worry, they get plenty frisky later on, in songs like "Kick Drum Heart" and "Slight Figure of Speech"). It's a good beginning, a fresh chapter sort of song, as the singer starts out by leaving town: " Load the car and write the note / Grab your bag and grab your coat / Tell the ones that need to know / We are headed north." I love how his voice toggles up an octave on that word "bag"; these guys hit a sweet spot where emo-indie anxiety intersects with the plaintive wail of bluegrass.
This whole song is about breaking out, taking a chance, although it's complicated by realistic fears and doubt. He knows where's he heading for -- "Ah Brooklyn Brooklyn take me in" he sings in the chorus, a majestic Band-like pronouncement -- but he suspects he's gonna be a wreck by the time he gets there ("My hands, they shake; my head it spins"). It seems there's a woman there (naturally), with "eyes that shine / Like a pair of stolen polished dimes." He knows he wants her, but the effort of getting to her is huge, not just geographically but emotionally.
Like a lot of guys (both indie angsters and taciturn bluegrass dudes), it's hard to reveal his emotions -- and now, he has to. Notice how the whole song shushes down for the crucial verse: "Three words that became hard to say / I . . . and love . . . and you." (What a novel idea -- slowing down the tempo, bringing the song down a notch -- pay attention, Bruce Springsteen.) Those three words are still hard to say; he can take them separately, but putting them together is almost more than he can manage. But he's gonna give it a shot, god bless him.
These guys are, what, 33 and 29, and yet they present themselves as world-weary, sadder-but-wiser types -- "Dumbed-down and numbed by time and age," as he sings in the last verse. I'm tempted to laugh, except he's won me over with the internal rhyme and the gruff wobble in his vocals. I actually believe that his dreams have faded, and he's become resigned to taking life one day at a time. "The highway sets the traveler's stage / All exits look the same," he sings, philosophically. Highway songs -- I've always had a weakness for those.
I'll admit, I was a little crestfallen to discover this record on so many other critics 2009 Best Album lists -- I hate joining the pack. But I kept Marshall at Number One -- I'll never give up hoping that Marshall will get "discovered" again. Hey, it worked for Nick Lowe . . . .