Scott and Seth Avett, two-fifths of folk-rock outfit the Avett Brothers, are the subjects of the new chromatic GAP television spots. The commercials feature the pair in a classic Gap grayscale studio, just the Avetts and their guitars. Watching their eyes, it’s clear something isn’t quite right — Americana, melancholia, banjo and skinny jeans? Both appear determined not to meet the camera’s eyeline. They’re the same folks who helped bring American folk back to the (near) mainstream in their previous six albums, notably 2009’s I and Love and You, but with a cloudy blanket of corporate awkwardness. Would their latest, The Carpenter, suffer from the same?
The Avett Brothers
“The Once and Future Carpenter,” opens the album and answers this question with a resounding “No.” Right away, the Avetts and their bassist Bob Crawford (the core of the band) remind us that they’re real, touch-the-dirt American musicians. Simple guitar strumming — other bands strum, but the Avett Brothers strum — begins the rhymed reflection on death. In the course of the first minute and a half, a second set of strings joins, then another, and soon voices add harmony. What started as a man and a guitar quickly evolves into a humble tour-de-force worthy of starting off The Carpenter.
The words hit on beat in “Pretty Girl from Michigan,” until without warning, the last lines spit rapid fire as if the “Pretty Girl” stormed away and the singer was compelled to finish his thought before the door slammed. Like the vocals, the guitar takes an unexpected turn toward hard rock at the chorus. But like a North Carolina gentleman, the rift is quick and the song composes itself again. There’s a mish-mash of reasons it didn’t work out with the “Pretty Girl” — first he blames her, then himself, then, yeah, it was probably his fault: “The way you cut the rope that kept you dangling from such pitiful amounts of hope / I would have cut it too.” Cue dramatic guitar solo.
The cello steals “February Seven,” a haunting ballad of forgetting but not necessarily forgiving. “There’s no returning to the spoils / Once you’ve spoiled the thought of them / There’s no falling back to sleep / Once you’ve waken from the dream.” The cello is dreary enough for the wet end of winter and its persistence complements and challenges the lyrics in a battle of the disheartened.
“Through My Prayers” follows, its melody highly reminiscent of “The Ballad of Love and Hate,” from the Brothers’ Emotionalism. But “Ballad” is better, and this track is easily passed over.
The biggest disappointment on The Carpenter is that “Geraldine” is only a hair over 90 seconds long. Its beat and four-word-by-four-line stanzas are up tempo and necessarily quick — a shot of adrenaline before the album fizzles out. Sandwiched between “Geraldine” and album closer “Life,” the experimental rock show “Paul Newman vs. the Demons” sounds unneeded and out of place.
“Life” is the perfect bookend to complement “The Once and Future Carpenter.” It wouldn’t be an Avett Brothers album without a casual reference to “hell on earth,” but overall the closer is sentimental in instrumentation and lyric. Exploring how love and honesty can make life unearthly, “Life” is the album’s defining track.
Produced by rock auteur Rick Rubin, The Carpenter solidifies that Avett Brothers can continue to stay relevant with their classic folk. The Gap jeans may be too tight in a spot or two, but they look great by and large.