Tuesday, December 11, 2012

 My Top Ten Albums of 2012
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.   


Dave K. said...

Very nice piece! I think the Carpenter is one of the best releases of 2012. There are many bands mining similar musical terrain (Americana/roots), but there is no one like the Avett Brothers. I wish I had gone to see them. :-)


NickS said...

Lovely indeed. The cello is great, the waltz time is nice, and he sings it really well.

NickS said...

I've been continuing to listen to this track, because it's very good and because the sound reminds me of another song which I can't quite place.

I still haven't got it, but I find myself thinking about a different song -- "Wander", from my recent country mix, has a different sound (and suffers from the absence of the cello) and Paul Burch has a different voice, and the tone is different, but the themes overlap.

It's an interesting song, I almost didn't include it on the mix. When I first listened to it, I liked it but I wasn't sure if enough happened in it. There's a lot of storytelling on that mix, and that song felt like it ended in basically the same place that it began.

The more I listened to, my sense of the song changed. It's a love song, about missing somebody. I originally thought of it as reflecting a temporary absence, a partner who is gone for a while, maybe a month or two, but then I began to wonder if it is about a permanent absence. I had thought the former because the tone felt tender and wistful rather than sad. But the more I thought about the words the more convinced I became that the latter interpretation was correct.

Incidentally, that also made it seem like not quite what I wanted on the mix; ideally I would have had another happy love song after the fantastic Suzy Bogguss song, but that's another story.

Assuming, however, that "Wander" is about grief I think it's an interesting contrast with "Through My Prayers." Listen to how he sings the section

"It takes me by surprise how I'm helpless / waiting for you to wander back again. Everywhere I go I know the ghost of you. / I reach and run, my breath is gone, I've mistaken someone for you."

related to the lines

"Every night after and every day since / I found myself crying when the memory hit / Sometimes it knocks me down, sometimes I can just put it away."

Where Seth evokes pain and ache, Paul Burch is more reflective. "Wander" is more removed from that pain. In part that's because the song is about the happy and sad parts of thinking about somebody you miss. But I also really like how, in that particular bit the words that are emphasized as "surprise" and "helpless." It's about the ways in which ones emotions can be mysterious -- who knows why they are sometimes overpowering and sometimes now.

In that way I think it goes will with "Trough My Prayers" presenting a different mood.

NickS said...

Oh, look, you've bumped one of the posts with a long rambling comment by me to the top . . .

Just a note, the header says, "top albums of 2013" which seems a little premature.

I'll also say that I'm impressed by your commitment to keeping up with new music. Seeing this series announced I thought, "I'm not sure that I've bought 10 albums released in 2012." I've bought a lot of music this year, but the vast majority of it has been older. That said I'll be outraged if the Guy Clark tribute doesn't make your top 10.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks, I fixed the date. Been having serious trouble lately remembering what year it is! If that's not a sign of age I don't know what is....