Photo from Impressions school annual, 1977
The Avett Brothers first popped up on my radar about a year ago, at a time when the hype around their 2007 album Emotionalism was still building. Bluegrass punk is not my usual scene, but Emotionalism caught me with its excellent pop harmonies and almost Beatlesy melodies. Now, with their new album, I and Love and You, looming on the horizon with a September release date, I'm pretty psyched. All indications are that they are continuing to hone their songcraft further, as indicated by last year's EP.
My worry about exploring the Avett Brothers' back catalog was that they were probably a just-okay bluegrass band that didn't really go "pop" until Emotionalism. And then I heard about Mignonette, their 2004 album, and I knew I needed to hear it. A sprawling, messy concept album about a 1884 incident of shipwreck and cannibalism on the high seas? This is my kind of album! It's taken me a while to ingest all the songs of Mignonette, but I like it more every time I listen to it. My guess about their pre-Emotionalism material turned out to be both true and not true - the upbeat songs are more honky-tonk than pop, and numbers like "Nothing Short of Thankful" and "Hard Worker" are just downright goofy. Nothing close to the pop perfection of "Die Die Die" or "Paranoia in B-Flat Major". But over its twenty songs, Mignonette contains a wealth of treasures, particularly in the harmony-heavy ballads like "The New Love Song" and "Pretty Girl at the Airport".
The concept behind the album doesn't hold together well - "The Day That Marvin Gaye Died" doesn't really have anything to say about 19th century British maritime law. And there is some unnecessary clutter, including some in-studio chatter and two (!) extraneous hidden songs. But, as I said, I give a lot of leeway to overlong concept albums, and Mignonette is among the best I've heard lately. The band's folk and country influences are blended perfectly to the point that I almost don't miss the pop hooks of Emotionalism.
The album's closing number, "Salvation Song", could pass for an old traditional, with a worn melody and guitar-and-banjo arrangement. But the Avetts are already showing some love of pop dynamics in the shift to a solo piano and layered harmonies on the first chorus. I love this kind of thing, so it really gets me when they do the final chorus a capella. This would be an ideal ending to Mignonette - who knows why the band decided to follow this perfect moment with two middling hidden tracks. If this song appeals to you at all, look for I and Love and You in September.
"Salvation Song" by the Avett Brothers