Avett Bros – The Carpenter

Little illustration for a Pitchfork review about the Avett Brothers new album “The Carpenter”

The Avett Brothers

It has been said that The Carpenter is the Avett Brothers’ album about death. Death is there in the first song, there in the last, and wheedling all in between. The brothers, actual and nominal, aren’t the raggedy kids they were when they started out a decade ago; they’ve married, started families, settled down. The band’s last record, 2009’s I and Love and You, offered a tamer version of Seth and Scott Avett’s splintered yawps and shredded banjo strings, and their live show has tempered as their catalog has filled out and fanbase expanded from regional devotees to national masses. It’s tempting to peg the Avetts’ story as one of a little-band-that-could selling out and smoothing over when a major label and bigger stages come calling, but I’m not sure it’s that simple; for an act in it for the long haul, a certain rounding of the edges seems not only inevitable, but natural– healthy, even. Growing up is hard to do, but outright refusing can be trickier.
Either way, as the Avetts know, it all shakes out the same in the end. This record, the band’s second for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, is hardly the first time their eyes have focused on that far, dark horizon. Among all the rough-and-tumble soul-searching and skirt-chasing of their five previous releases there’s been a steady procession of nods toward the dying of the light: “The Lowering”, from 2006’s Four Thieves Gone, remains the most gutting; Emotionalism’s “Die Die Die”– which renders death a taunting, stomp-along chorus– still the most fun.
But The Carpenter offers something different. In its most lucid moments, at least, it grapples with something perhaps more unfathomable than dying– not being old, but growing old. “Things change and get strange with the movement of time/ It’s happening right now to you,” Scott drawls on “Down with the Shine”, the rhapsodic choruses smudged with bleary, boozy horns. There’s a vast swath between shaking a fist at death and finally meeting its hand; meanwhile, calendar pages turn, diesel engines pull us along, babies are born. “A Father’s First Spring” could fall into the treacle-trap its title suggests but avoids it thanks to one of the band’s finest songwriting efforts in some time. “I have been homesick to you since we met,” Scott sings of and to his own little girl, countering the sweetness with the sudden abject terror of new fatherhood: “The realest thing I ever felt/ Was the blood on the floor and the love in your yell/ I was a child before the day that I met Eleanor.” Under the verses, guitar lines tease and knit into one another; on the chorus, Benmont Tench’s organ wells and whirrs like an overfull heart.
Too many of the other songs feel starved of that love, though. The title track, which opens the album, suffers from major tonal whiplash, the chillingly oblique line, “when the black dress drags upon the ground, I’ll be ready to surrender,” bafflingly abutted with the rancid cliche of “we’re all in this together.” The maudlin “Winter in my Heart” is colorless despite the verses’ insistence upon listing color after color, the mopey strums and mews of “I don’t know what the reasons are” so effectively calling to mind that antidepressant ad with the morose bouncing ball that Zoloft should cut the band a check. “I Never Knew You” tries to slip into a loose-armed barroom vibe but veers into weird sock-hop territory before it gets the chance, plagued all the while by an needling, petty bitterness that would’ve been out of place even on the band’s freshman efforts.
The most notable travesty here– and I do believe it is a travesty– is “Paul Newman vs. the Demons”, which Scott Avett this summer told Rolling Stone was meant to harken back to the Avett Brothers’ earlier incarnation as “a loud band” with an affection for Soundgarden, but which only proves they were wise to avert course in the first place. Heaped upon the gunky, puffed-up electric guitars and drum thrashings and hernia-busting vocals are lyrics referencing the movie star’s eponymous line of organic, all-proceeds-to-charity wine. “Oh, to be like him and walk a path / To lend a hand, do something worth a damn,” the brothers sing. In all honesty, if these guys want to slap their name on some preservative-free snacks– Avett-O’s, maybe?– I’ll leave Publix with a box or two. But I’d rather reenact the egg-eating scene from Cool Hand Luke with a jar of Sockarooni sauce for dipping than listen to this song ever again.
Track for track, the Avetts’ best release might be 2008’s The Second Gleam, a spry, six-song EP; The Carpenter, winnowed down to its best efforts, would seem of a piece. This may be the real tragedy of the band’s signing to Rubin’s American imprint, which was recently shuffled from Sony to Universal Republic: the need to justify the major-label investment with full LPs rather than the inbetweeny projects allowed for by Ramseur Records, the band’s longtime independent home. Rubin may be a wizard in the studio, but his involvement has fostered a truly remarkable level of bloat in this once bare-boned, focused band. But who knows? Maybe this is all exactly what they want. And if it is, who can blame them for getting it? Life is too short, and too long, for anything else.

CONVERGE : Axe To Fall

Axe To Fall

Just read Pitchfork’s Review for Converge’s new album “Axe To Fall” and let me say it’s dead on. So I’m not going to attempt to write one. I haven’t received my vinyl in the mail yet but did get a chance to stream the album from myspace a few million times before they took the stream down. You can read the review below. I also want to note that this is some of the best writing I have read in a while. While Converge’s new album is extremely passionate and well written so is Lee’s review.

Converge are this generation’s Black Flag. This generation might not remember Black Flag, so here’s a refresher. In the early 1980s, Black Flag and peers like Bad Brains and Minor Threat took punk beyond “three chords and the truth.” The result was hardcore punk. It was deliberately ugly and harsh; Clash-fetishizing critics have mostly ignored it. Black Flag epitomized DIY– they booked their own shows, handed out their own flyers, rehearsed with military discipline, and put out records on guitarist Greg Ginn’s label, SST. Despite shifting lineups, their mission never wavered: to destroy.

Destruction isn’t Converge’s agenda. They differ from Black Flag in that aspect: They build things up, not tear them down. But they can do so because of Black Flag’s groundwork. Black Flag made it okay to fight cops, to fight fans, and to do what punk always promised but rarely did: be oneself. The band was both explosive and implosive. It was destined to end.

Converge have learned from Black Flag’s mistakes. They work as a team and have taken DIY to new levels. Singer Jacob Bannon runs the Deathwish, Inc. label and does artwork for Converge and other bands. Guitarist Kurt Ballou runs a recording studio and has become this generation’s Steve Albini. Bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller have made waves with other bands like Doomriders and Cave In. Together, they whip up a catharsis matched by few. They play hard and wear their hearts on their sleeves. As a result, kids in droves wear Converge on their sleeves. (The band’s Twitter handle is “convergecult.”) No other current punk band’s imagery is as iconic. The face on the cover of 2001’s Jane Doe, the hand on the cover of 2004’s You Fail Me– they are the Black Flag bars of today.

The band wasn’t always so potent. It took a few albums to work through a wiry hybrid of mathcore and metal. Jane Doe was Converge’s watershed, honing their sound to a lean, abrasive essence. Over You Fail Me and 2006’s No Heroes, it expanded to include slower, abstract sludge. Black Flag went through a similar transformation. Their landmark album My War was equal parts lightning and Black Sabbath. Axe to Fall is Converge’s My War.

The album is, to quote The Exorcist and Pantera, a vulgar display of power. Bannon’s howl is exfoliating. His lyrics aren’t hard to parse: “I need to learn to love me”; “No longer feel anyone/ No longer fear anything.” Basic stuff, but it reaches deep and pulls no punches. Ballou’s guitar dials up the crackle of Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All. It gallops, shoots electric arcs, dives down to subterranean depths. Ballou mines the upper register more than ever before, turning leads into leitmotifs. The frenzied pull-offs in “Dark Horse” are pure Kirk Hammett; the supercharged chug of “Reap What You Sow” recalls the fire of early Megadeth. Ballou isn’t really playing metal– his band is too short-haired and quirky for that– but he’s out-metalling 99% of metal bands today. Newton’s bass heaves dirt divots; Koller’s kit is so murderous, it’s practically the sound of ethnic cleansing. The title track rotates through thrash beats, blastbeats, and d-beats like a race car driver shifting gears. It’s fast, greasy, and loud as a motherfucker.

Axe to Fall isn’t all axes, though. It’s also anvils and stone pillows and beds of fallen leaves. The record is perfectly sequenced. It starts with three seamless barnburners, then settles into smooth toggling between slow and fast. The slow numbers likely won’t get live airing– kids prefer speed– but they’re amazing constructions of texture and friction. Near the end, piano and glockenspiel make like Tom Waits and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. They’re elegiac and haunting, an inversion of the napalm death that preceded them. A huge array of guests help out, representing acts like Disfear, 108, Genghis Tron, and Neurosis. They are too many to list, but the bottom line is, they work. Whether they’re yelling, singing, or laying down leads, they fit their songs. And that in itself is fitting.

— Cosmo Lee, October 29, 2009