And while we're in banjo mode . . .
The Avett Brothers: The Carpenter
"Through My Prayers"
It's easy to mix up the Mumfords and the Avetts -- both feature banjos and vocal harmonies, both had break-out albums in 2009 (the Avetts' was the spectacular I and Love and You), both have names that sound like family concerns. But there's definitely a difference, and it's worth keeping them straight. The Avetts are truly brothers (you know how I love brother acts!) and truly Americans, and they've never quite shed the upbeat sweetness of their southern folk roots, even as they steer it into rock territory. It's a toss-up for me between the Mumfords' fire-and-brimstone and the Avetts' buoyant spirit -- how lovely to live in a world where we can have both.
I went for a pensive track last time I featured the Avetts, so by all rights this time I should let you sample the fun of them rocking out. But you've probably already heard "Live and Die" on the radio, (if not, you're listening to the wrong radio station), and you could always check out live versions of "I Never Knew You" or the wicked dark samba of "Paul Newman Vs. the Demons" on YouTube. And who knows; I could come back and post about audience favorite "Down With the Shine" in the very near future -- I do feel a Week of Waltzes coming on....
Meanwhile, here's the track that has stolen my heart on the Avetts' new album The Carpenter.
Couldn't be simpler or more straightforward: Someone he loved has died, and their last words together were angry, so he's miserable that he can never make things right again -- except in his prayers. You could call it a case of survivor's guilt, yet he genuinely seems comforted by the belief that his prayers will somehow get through. There's no histrionics here, as he remarks, "Sometimes it knocks me down, and sometimes I can just / Put it away." This is real world emotion, not some faked up drama, and that makes it even more poignant.
There's even a gentle moral -- how wonderfully old school! "Down in my mind where I don't care to go / The pain of a lesson is letting me know / If you have love in your heart, let it show / While you can." They slip that in so casually, the careless listener could overlook it, but surely that's the whole point of this song, and the justification for its emotional throb. (Remember, the Avett Brother's 2007 was even titled Emotionalism --- feelings do not scare these guys.)
This time it's brother Seth, the guitarist, on lead vocals. I love banjo-pickin' Scott's voice too, with its edge of raggedy country grit, but Seth's sweeter voice is perfect for this mellifluous melody. I love how he plays with the lilting waltz tempo, syncopating it here and there, scatting in some high notes on verse three -- keeping it fresh, keeping it real.
Jason Kwon's luminous cello is the other essential ingredient -- it makes me wonder, why don't more bands have cellos? The short answer is, most bands don't have the musical imagination that the Avett Brothers do, or the deep and abiding faith in melody.
All in all, it's just a lovely track. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Bone-shiveringly lovely. Thank God for the Avett Brothers.