By Josh Frazier , For the Daily
Published October 18, 2013
The Avett Brothers announce their evolving musical intentions in the opening track of their eighth studio album, Magpie and the Dandelion. “I was taught to live an open-ended life / And never trap myself in nothing,” the band croons over and over. This simple statement is true of the group’s progressive musical style, which layers live guitars, cellos and drums along with more traditional folk sounds like banjo. The combination of modern rock elements with conventional folk musicality creates a pleasurable album that is easy to listen to from start to finish, though marred by poor track sequencing.
Magpie and the Dandelion
The Avett Brothers
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Magpie and the Dandelion was entirely produced by musical savant Rick Rubin, who oversees the orchestration of tracks that range from grandiose to simplistic. Rubin employed a similar style of production on Yeezus, Kanye West’s recent album, which he also executive produced. His consistent presence behind the boards allow the Avetts (two of which are actually brothers) to weave their introspective lyrics over a varied sonic landscape, making piano-driven ballads and raucous folk numbers sound equally at home.
Emotional lyrics accompany the nu-folk musical backdrop here, and as with The Avett Brothers’ previous albums, Magpie and the Dandelion features tracks that range from self-lacerating to reflective on the beauty of life. Pensive yet straightforward, the lyrical content encourages the listener to contemplate their own place in the world, while reveling in the personal reflections of the Avetts. The biggest issue with Magpie and the Dandelion is the poor sequencing from track to track. The album has no weak individual songs, but ballad after ballad in the middle of the album slows down Magpie’s pacing.
Magpie and the Dandelion bears a strong resemblance to The Carpenter, the Avett Brothers’ excellent previous album released last year. Both albums were recorded in the same studio sessions, but rather than sounding like a collection of cast-off tracks, Magpie and the Dandelion stands on its own as an independent record. “Skin and Bones,” the strongest individual track, is a meditation on self-worth and one’s role in the universe. “Souls Like the Wheels,” an inexplicably live track, follows, jarring the middle of a well-produced studio album.
The Avett Brothers perform live incredibly well, with 2010’s Live, Volume 3 a standout in their lengthy discography. But the unexplained dramatic shift in tone ruins any momentum heading into the penultimate song of the album, “Vanity.” This uptempo ballad also diverges from the album’s folkier highlights, with an obvious Billy Joel influence. This diversity of styles is a gift and a curse on Magpie and the Dandelion. When a band is on its eighth studio album, fans expect fresh content as well as a refinement of its traditional sound.
The Avett Brothers refuse to make conventional music, from their genre-spanning production to the presence of unfinished demos tacked on to the end of the album. The deluxe edition features six roughly produced, unfinished sketches of the well-polished tracks that ultimately wound up on the record. These demos emphasize how the songwriting process involves work in progress. They give fans insight into the early, more visceral and passionate stages of songwriting, prior to Rubin’s glossy, multifaceted production. The unpolished demo cuts were intended to highlight the band’s creativity and talented songwriting, and while they are an indicator of the Avett Brothers’ ability, they make the album feel like a collection of individual tracks that lacks unity and focus.
Magpie and the Dandelion is a powerful record that falls short of its potential, taking 11 solid songs and turning them into a mediocre final product due to a lack of proper sequencing and thematic cohesion.