So you were among the many who fretted the major-label deal Concord, N.C., country boys The Avett Brothers consummated when they hopped on a plane to Rick Rubin's Document Room studio in Malibu to make their big-bucks debut? Afraid that they'd change? Worried that they'd become a big rock band, free of their rootsy shamble and egalitarian charm?
Just a glance at the cover of the resulting album, I and Love and You, should allay such anxiety: Scott Avett's oil-on-canvas painting is an underexposed portrait depicting a presumably naked woman, her figured cloaked in shadow and darkness that blend into her brown hair. Her age-hardened face strains to the left, peering intensely into an infinite distance. At the right quarter of the canvas, a long skull sits, turned so that its profile suggests a plume of smoke, the form of a jellyfish or simply the anonymity of death. Either way, it's a menacing frame that, aside from a sticker attached to the factory's plastic wrap, doesn't offer the band's name, much less suggest the good-timing live reputation upon which they've built a broad national fan base. That is, if The Avett Brothers were going to sell out, they likely wouldn't have done it with a cover that might've served best as an alternate for two 1988 Rubin productions, 1988's Danzig by Glenn Danzig or South of Heaven by Slayer.
Rest easy, Avett Nation: The brothers are mostly as you remembered.
Though I and Love and You indeed augments the Avett's atavistic charms with an array of chamber rock accompaniment like strings, tuba and piano, the quartet mostly charms and maddens in the same ways it always has: Scott and Seth Avett write strong, evocative choruses, marches of major chords delivering, across these 13 tracks, about a dozen hooks you'll have a hard time ignoring. "It Goes On and On," for instance, straddles a fraternal shout-along and a two-part round, its title mantra working as a battle cry for those left persevering in love. Its companion piece, "Kick Drum Heart," shakes the sheets with a glockenspiel that doubles the piano's melody and, again, exclaims its title as a song for the lovers. And, as always, the brothers sprinkle bold proclamations about their own lives—"They said, 'I hope that you will never change'/ I went and cut my hair"—among pithy adages—"Decide what to be and go be it." They honestly write words they'll hope you live by, and they earnestly sing them in choruses they hope you'll remember. With notable exceptions, they land both goals here.
The band's steady, welcome stylistic expansion from early stomped-out country into the blue-eyed soul, tender ballads and full-on rock that defined 2007's Emotionalism continues here. The above pair of piano hustles are countered by the gentle banjo-and-guitar shuffle "January Wedding" and the romantic string-and-bass sweep of "Laundry Room." The group harmonies, galloping percussion and mention of jet planes and jet-sized ambitions during "Slight Figure of Speech" bring The Beatles' "Back in the U.S.S.R." back into the woods. Opener "I and Love and You" hints at the exquisite tenderness of The Band's "Whispering Pines" simply gaining its confidence and making its great escape into the city. And the distended, even structure and mid-range acoustic wisps of "Ten Thousand Words" suggest Led Zeppelin's "Going to California." There's a touch of Tusk's rich layers, a hint of Elton John's ebullience and—on closer "Incomplete and Insecure," which ends prematurely on the line, "I haven't finished a thing since I started my life/ I don't feel much like starting now"—the sort of humorous musical text painting that recalls Beck.
And, of course, like every Avett Brothers album, it gets a bit ahead of itself from time to time, its lofty musical goals making for a few top-heavy, clumsy moments. The dreamy tune "The Perfect Space" leaps into a rock midsection blindly, its pedestrian chord selection and plodding rhythm making The Avetts sound a bit like a bar band covering the loud section of "Stairway to Heaven." Meanwhile, "Head Full of Doubt/ Road Full of Promise" confirms its existential crisis with a structure that seems unsure of its intentions: Are we a rock band or a soul band?
So the immediate question—did signing to American Recordings somehow damage the Avetts' homespun heart?—is resolved: Not at all. Of course, there's another more pressing, somehow more nebulous question that only time can answer: Is this the sort of record that shoves The Avett Brothers into an even bigger national spotlight, so that, by next summer, they're selling out amphitheaters beyond the Triangle, too? Actually, the first answer mostly suggests the second. On their biggest release to date, The Avett Brothers don't reinvent themselves so much as expand their own possibilities. Across five previous albums, that strategy worked splendidly. There's no reason to believe it will stop now.