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Artist of the Month: The Avett Brothers

Jun 4, 2024

Artist of the Month: The Avett Brothers

(Editor’s Note: On May 17, The Avett Brothers released a new, self-titled album. BGS is proud to bring them back as our Artist of the Month for June 2024.

Below, enjoy a musical exploration of their illustrious career and prolific catalog. Plus, you’ll also find our Essential Avett Brothers Playlist for even more discography digging. And, you can revisit our feature from June 2016, when they were first selected to be our AOTM eight years ago.)

Depending on how you reckon it, you could say The Avett Brothers’ career goes back about two-dozen years – or Scott and Seth Avett’s entire lives. Even if you know nothing at all about them, all it takes is a few seconds of hearing them singing together to realize that they really are brothers.

Elder brother Scott’s voice is usually earthy and down below to Seth’s angelic up above. They meet in the middle to harmonize on songs about a series of quests – for love, redemption, family, pretty girls from far-away places, or just to be seen. Small wonder that one of their latest undertakings is Swept Away, a musical inspired by the mythology of their musical world.

To celebrate our Artist of the Month, here are a dozen songs about The Avett Brothers’ remarkable journey.

“Pretty Girl From Matthews” (2002)

Pretty girls are, of course, a perennial songwriting topic for the Avetts – most of them identified simply as “Pretty Girl From.” It’s taken them far and wide, from Michigan to Chile, Annapolis, San Diego, Cedar Lane, Raleigh, Feltre, Locust and even “at the Airport.” But here is the earliest example in all the Avetts’ early, detuned glory, from a town southeast of Charlotte. Originally titled “Song For Robin,” “Pretty Girl From Matthews” was the opening track on 2002’s Country Was.

“Talk on Indolence” (2006)

Folksy Americana trappings aside, Seth and Scott started out playing in bands that did a lot more screaming and thrashing than crooning and strumming. And even as their music has grown more polished and stately over time, their raw streak still comes out regularly. This breathlessly paced head-banging rant, which kicked off 2006’s Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions at an amphetamine pace, is one they still play at most shows.

“Distraction #74” (2006)

Another Four Thieves Gone recurrent, “Distraction #74” evokes British seafaring vibes seemingly tailor-made for raucous pub sing-alongs. And it has a perfect Avett Brothers lyrical theme: Torn between two lovers, the protagonist mostly wonders which of them he’s going to miss the most. The only certainty is that he’ll blow it with both of them.

“Die Die Die” (2007)

In which the Avetts don’t just make a simple pop move, but pull off what might be the least-likely Beatles rip ever. “Die Die Die” opened 2007’s Emotionalism, their first album to crack the Billboard 200 and a showcase for new cellist Joe Kwon. Among the Fab Four echoes here are Beatle-esque vocal harmonies and a guitar solo that’s pure George Harrison. Onstage, they’ll sometimes make it even more overt by closing with flourishes from “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

“Paranoia in Bb Major” (2007)

Nothing fancy, just a little banjo and glockenspiel number from Emotionalism that perfectly captures the Avetts’ manic whisper-to-a-scream mood swings. Then it closes with one of their quirkiest recorded moments, wordless falsetto chanting that is somehow adorable.

“Murder in the City” (2008)

From 2008’s The Second Gleam, “Murder in the City” came out right when this cult act was about to go mainstream. It feels like one last look back before stepping into the spotlight, a series of epigrams about love, jealousy, family and forgiveness.

“Murder in the City” remains one of the Avetts’ regular live set-pieces, with lyrics that have evolved to reflect the brothers’ evolution from children to parents themselves. It’s a cinch they’ll still be playing and updating it someday when they’re grandparents, too.

“Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” (2009)

Fittingly, “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” was the song the Avetts played during their star turn with Mumford & Sons behind Bob Dylan at the 2011 Grammy Awards. “Decide what to be and go be it” might be their most durable manifesto, which is a big reason it remains their most-performed song live. According to Avett Brothers super-fan Tim Mossberger’s database, it’s closing in on 1,000 live performances. And it still kills. All it takes is hearing Kwon’s cello riff to bring on chills.

“Laundry Room” (2009)

Like “Head Full of Doubt,” “Laundry Room” is drawn from the Avetts’ 2009 big-league debut, the Rick Rubin-produced I and Love and You – their first gold record. It’s a beautifully poignant portrait of stolen-moment love that may or may not be doomed.

“Tonight I’ll burn the lyrics/ ’Cause every chorus was your name,” Scott sighs, contemplating a “head-full of songs” he dreamed up overnight. The double-time hoedown outro plays like a bittersweet wake. “Laundry Room” ranks second on Mossberger’s live-performance database.

“Live and Die” (2012)

From 2012’s The Carpenter, the Avetts’ first to crack Billboard’s Top 10, “Live and Die” is just about the poppiest they’ve ever sounded – even with banjo as lead instrument. In contrast to the Avetts’ usual outlook, it is surprisingly optimistic, which made it the perfect upbeat closing-credits accompaniment for director Jud Apatow’s romantic comedy, This Is 40.

“Satan Pulls the Strings” (2014)

The studio version of “Satan Pulls the Strings” appeared on 2016’s True Sadness, but this one was around for years before that. In fact, its best incarnation is as entrance music for the live show. Among my favorite in-concert memories of the Avetts was watching the entire seven-piece band enter the stage one by one and start in on this song on New Year’s Eve 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina. That performance appears on 2015’s Live Vol. Four.

“No Hard Feelings” (2016)

In recent years, “No Hard Feelings” has been the Avetts’ customary show-closer, ending each night on a prayerful, elegiac note. As depicted in the 2017 biopic May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers (overseen by Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio), recording it for 2016’s True Sadness LP was an overwhelmingly emotional experience. It triggered a meltdown by Scott immediately afterward, a sequence that proved to be the film’s most memorable moment.

“Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” (2022)

On-record as well as onstage, the Avetts have always had splendid taste in covers, dipping into the songbooks of Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Bob Wills and many others. There’s also “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” a 1972 Top-40 classic by the late great folk-rocker Jim Croce. Seth started doing a stripped-down acoustic version of “Operator” with bassist Bob Crawford back in 2012, and it’s one they still dust off regularly 12 years later.

David Menconi’s latest book, Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music, was published in 2023 by University of North Carolina Press.

David would like to thank Tim Mossberger for assistance with facts and figures.

Photo Credit: Crackerfarm

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Artist of the Month: The Avett Brothers
Artist of the Month: The Avett Brothers