Comparison. It plagues us all at different times, and is rarely helpful. In music and the arts, at best it’s an interesting diversion, at worst a complete waste of time. But sometimes it sure is fun.
The following article is only really, truly helpful if you are saying to yourself, “I can only buy one album this month, and both of these sound amazing, so which one should I buy?” Well, I’m about to tell you.
Here we have two bands. Both are “indie folk” darlings with heavy bluegrass leanings, both feature lots of banjo, both have rabid fan bases, both have new albums in September, and both have vocalists/songwriters who come from families in the ministry, who use their music (one more than the other) to explore their own faith journeys.
In this corner, we have the veterans: The Avett Brothers. The Carpenter is their seventh album, and their second under super-producer Rick Rubin. Their last effort, I and Love and You wasn’t necessarily their best, though it was excellent, but it was the album that garnered them a lot more popular attention. It earned them a slot at the Grammys, playing their own song and then backing up Bob Dylan, alongside their competitors in today’s match…
Mumford & Sons: hailing in the opposite corner, we have the British bluegrass boys with their second album Babel. Their first album, Sigh No More, was a smash success that built them a huge following in the States, and rightly so. I’ve long thought that their follow-up was an impossible task–if they did too much of the same thing, they’d be criticised, but if they strayed too far from what worked on the first album, they’d lose people.
So how did these two albums shape up?
Well, to explain my answer, I need to briefly explain how I expected them to shape up. Let’s start with…
1. The Albums Are Announced: I first heard the announcement for these albums in early summer. At that time, I was still listening to Mumford’s album with a lot of frequency considering I’d had it for two years, and especially connecting with’s it’s breathtaking first half. Though nervous about their follow-up, I was also super-excited.
My relationship to the Avett Brothers’ music was a bit more indifferent. I knew people that loved them, and I enjoyed them in a light way from time to time, but really only loved one song: the title track from I and Love and You, which made my cut of the top songs of 2009. But I knew I’d give their new album a try, as I’d really respected their performance on the Grammys and felt slightly bad that the spotlight had been grabbed away from them by the Mumford newcomers.
2. The First Singles are Released–The Avett Brothers’ single “Live and Die” was released first, followed by, several weeks later, “I Will Wait” by Mumford. “I Will Wait” struck me as neither bad nor amazing on my first couple of listens. It sounds very much like a track from their first album, and has that energy and passion that makes the first album so great.
“Live and Die” was a different story. It grabbed me instantly–I think it took one listen for it to be stuck in my head. I can’t recall a more catchy, peppy tune from these guys–it just has a melody that gets under my skin, and I found myself getting more and more excited for the whole album. That was definitely helped by reading an essay by I believe Scott Avett on the artist and the way he reflects the Creator.
So with the singles, Round One goes to: The Avett Brothers.
3. The Albums Themselves Both came out in September, and I’ve had a chance to get to know both. Let’s start again with Mumford & Sons’ Babel.
The reviews for this thing have been all over the place–I saw a harsh 2 star review and I’ve seen several four star reviews. My take on it is this: hmmm. That’s my take. Just: hmmm.
Okay, I’ll expand. I like the album. I do. They definitely hew closer to the formula of the first album than I expected, but I think that largely works in their favor. In the context of the album, the single is better than I gave it credit for. They do add some new flourishes–Marcus Mumford’s vocals are more snarly and aggressive than before (take the title track), there’s a bit of electric guitar here and there. And there are some amazing songs: Holland Road, Hopeless Wanderer (which I can’t wait to play loudly while driving down the M1), a few others.
But there are cracks, as well. I find it annoying that they felt the need to again include one song peppered with the F-word, as if the “1 F-word song and everything else pristine” is going to be a gimmick from now on. Some of the songs are, forgive me, boring. Some of the lyrics seem quite cliched or uninspired. And that last word sort of sums up for me some of how I feel about this album. Go back and find on youtube their Grammy performance–it feels inspired, hopeful, joyful. And to me, watching clips of recent performances, the lead singer specifically seems a bit more angry, and a lot more tired. The joy seems to be missing. I get enough of tired and angry in the real world to devote my energy to it musically.
You know, at some level, it’s not even that it’s uninspired. Some it feels maybe even inauthentic. As if they thought, “Well, songs about spiritual struggle worked, so here’s some more of those. Having one song with the F-word worked, so…” That may not be true at all. But that’s what I feel.
What’s missing to me is a strong sense of melody–it’s hard to remember some of the songs, and there are few of those singalong moments the first record had, nothing like those “It will set you free…be more like the man you were made to be…”-style moments.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sounding like I hate this record, and I don’t. There are some, once-again, breathtaking moments on here. Beautiful ones. It’s just that their fewer than I wanted, and they are surrounded by some things that worry me about the future of this band. They have slipped from the top of my “must see in concert” list.
Overall Grade for Babel: a mid-range B.
Now on to The Carpenter. For the first time since I was told about the Avett’s about six years ago, I get it. If this is about comparison, then know this: the song-writing on this record is just better. These guys have more experience, and they’re willing to work on songs until they are tight. They cover a broad range of topics, from the sentimental (A Father’s First Spring, about a newborn daughter) to the…well, to whatever the rocker Paul Newman vs. The Demons is about. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, just twelve tight well-written songs. Not a single one is a “skipper”.
Highlights for me include the single mentioned above, I Never Knew You (there’s a moment towards the end that gives me goosebumps, when the harmony of the chorus changes to being the melody of the chorus–just great singing), and Down With the Shine. I have to be in the right mood for the numerous slow songs, of which there may be one too many for my tastes, but all in all, a beautiful record.
Overall grade for The Carpenter: A minus.
One interesting effect of this: every time I put on the Mumford record, I do like it a lot. But when I think about them in general, I have a sudden sour taste. The effect of the Avett Brothers record has been the opposite–I had a couple of other albums of theirs that I never really got into–free downloads and whatnot–but now I’m going back and appreciating older stuff at a deeper level. That is a rare thing for me. Suddenly, they’ve gotten into my skin, into my soul; I’m even considering singing one of their songs at an event tomorrow.
They’ve also made it to the top of my “see live” list, and it is not uncommon for them to play 28 songs in a concert. They are supposedly amazing live, and some of the footage I’m finding on youtube testifies to that. So I’ll leave you with that: a blurry performance of their simple (but catchy) Down With the Shine from Jimmy Fallon, which they perform with an urgency I find unusual but enthralling for a live performance, as if the singer (is it Scott or Seth?) is desperate that we understand what he is communicating. Enjoy: