Albums A to Z: Emotionalism

It happens to all of us at some point of our lives: the moment we freeze and our tastes are — for the most part — fixed. Growing up, many of us snicker at parents and grandparents who seem to have stopped adapting to fashion and wear the same style of shirt or shoes they wore ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.

Knowing that a musical version of that same tendency would soon become apparent as I continue this tour of my record collection, I figured I’d both cop to it early on and then talk about one of the few newer bands that I’ve recently embraced.

EmotionalismThe Avett Brothers, Emotionalism

I bought Emotionalism last year on a whim, after seeing a rerun of The Avett Brothers’ performance on Austin City Limits. But it wasn’t all that much of a stretch. For one, I’m a sucker for sibling acts (more to come). For two, these particular siblings fit comfortably at the crossroads of folk, country, rock, and punk where most of my favorites reside. (For a reflection on this North Carolina band’s relationship to roots music — appreciative but not worshipful — see this 2010 interview.) For three, I picked their first album to achieve mainstream success, rather than diving into their earliest work (four LPs and three EPs).

Still, I think it’s a good place to start, since Emotionalism catches The Avetts at the magical, fleeting moment in which they’re polished enough to use a studio well, but not so popular that they’re yet tempted/able to hire a Rick Rubin to smooth away the rough edges.

To cite just two of the most distinctively appealing things about Emotionalism that are harder to find in the 2009 Rubin-produced follow-up, I and Love and You… First, Scott Avett’s banjo — it doesn’t produce the virtuosic arpeggios so associated with bluegrass, but a simpler, rawer sound that wouldn’t be completely out of place on a John Lomax field recording (“Salina,” “I Would Be Sad” — or, for a sound closer to Dixieland jazz, the up-tempo “Pretty Girl from San Diego”). Unfortunately, the banjo mostly stayed on the rack on I and Love and You while Scott played similarly rudimentary but blander piano parts.

This very topic came up right away in a recent Rolling Stone interview with Scott Avett about the band’s forthcoming The Carpenter and the choice of “Live and Die” as its first single:

One beautiful thing: it’s one of the few songs on the album that has banjo. It’s an amazing time right now, the way banjo has become accepted. There’s teenagers playing the banjo again! When I was a teenager, that was ridiculous. I fell in love with the banjo, and I think it’s just amazing thing that’s happening. I get lost thinking, “That’s not a banjo song. That’s just a melody that sounds great.” It could be a pop song. You can forget about whether it has banjo or piano or anything in it. I think some of the parts of the song really open up and breathe, and the release in the song is so inviting, and I’m very proud. I’m very excited to perform it. It really takes the heart rate up; I can envision the relationship between the song and us and the fans when we play it live.

Then second, the vocal sound produced by Scott and brother Seth. Like I said above, I love sibling acts, in large part because they tend to produce absolutely unique vocal blends. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but brothers sing harmonies that sound like nothing else. But unlike the crystalline sound of fellow Southerners the Everlys or the Louvins, in which the mix is so seamless that it can be hard to distinguish one from the other, the Avetts’ vocals can seem more like a sibling rivalry — Seth’s harmonies and responses often as loud and passionate as Scott’s leads (playing Rick Danko to his brother’s Levon Helm, if I can indulge my obsession with The Band) — that nonetheless perfectly suits the song. (To see how this was muted on I and Love and You… Listen to the third track on that album, the excellent, piano-driven “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” then check out the band’s performance of the song on the 2009 2011 Grammys — when they were the clear standouts in a medley shared with Mumford & Sons and none other than Bob Dylan — and contrast Seth’s vocals on the first chorus and following verse.)

One other distinctive that hasn’t disappeared on later recordings is the ability of the band to follow seemingly simple songs down unexpectedly twisting roads without losing their way. In its nearly six minutes, “Pretty Girl from Chile” (yes, two songs about pretty girls…) starts as a backwoods confessional (“I’d like to say that I’m a faithful man but it may not be true”; “My heart is like a mason’s / Hands of weathered skin”), shifts to Spanish guitar as the lyrics focus in on one particular source of heartbreak, then inserts a voice mail (presumably) from the “pretty girl” in question (“Hey, I heard that song you write… You’re silly”) before wrapping up in a distorted fury worthy of Crazy Horse.

All of this could come off as overwrought. After all, recording a set of songs with titles like “Die Die Die,” “Shame,” “Paranoia in B-Flat Major,” “The Weight of Lies,” and “The Ballad of Love and Hate” and calling it all Emotionalism seems designed to conjure memories of a certain late and unlamented genre that had peaked a few years before. Fortunately, any Dashboard Confessional comparisons are disarmed: “Paranoia” saves its falsettos for a pretty, wordless melody resting on a bed of cello, and “The Ballad of Love and Hate” is more gentle and subtle than its title would make you think. And even if you get through the first dozen songs and are feeling emotionally ragged, the fiddle that opens the penultimate track (“Go to Sleep”) invites you out through the screen door onto the front porch, where you can’t help but grab a beer and sing along as The Avetts encourage you to “Forgive yourself if you think that you can.”

Release Date: 2007

Three Favorite Tracks: “Go to Sleep”; “Ballad of Love and Hate”; “Pretty Girl from Chile”

Other Nominees: The Byrds, Easy Rider; Ryan Adams, Easy Tiger; Steve Earle, El Corazón; The White Stripes, Elephant; Lucinda Williams, Essence; Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville; The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street.

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