⇒ Read our feature story, "The Avett Brothers ascend"
⇒ Watch our audio slide show of the Avetts on the road
Since 2000, The Avett Brothers have continuously evolved, adding instruments, members and structural ideas with every new release. We've compiled 13 of the band's key tracks into one player and provided explanations for their places in the Concord, N.C., trio's growth.
The first track off the band's 2000 self-titled, six-track debut, "Kind of in Love," bears the signature signs of The Avett Brothers—lyrical self-doubt, acoustic instruments, fraternal harmonies. But, written as a little pop ballad with predictable changes, it presents a band still searching for the sound that would set it apart. These three minutes brush by with an even pace and pleasant, sane countenance, building a firm songwriter base for the expansion of the band, its aims and its techniques to come.
"A lot of moving/ A lot of rolling/ A lot of driving/ A lot of strolling": Given those opening couplets, The Avett Brothers (at this point, a trio with Bob Crawford) could have called this one "The Story of Things to Come." The third cut from the band's long out-of-print 2002 album Country Was, "A Lot of Moving" paints the brothers as highway vagabonds with plans, running from the police down side streets and alleyways. The Avetts, of course, have taken slightly less risky thoroughfares to their success over the last six years, but this sound—banjo, guitars, bass, warmly captured vocals—has been the main ride.
A live sing-along favorite, "Love Like the Movies" cuts to the quick of The Avett Brothers' honesty and, more specifically, to their blue-collar roots. Seth Avett tempers romanticism (a constant in The Avetts' catalog) with pragmatism, castigating Hollywood's perfect soundtrack and finite story length, both produced, of course, with big budgets. He and his love aren't on a soundstage; they're in a "moon-lit field." Enjoy Dave Rhames' verse: The Charlotte singer claims he makes "the most relevant country music ... today," and his perfect tough-guy portrayal here actually delivers a strong case. The Brothers' long continuum of collaboration gets a fine boost on this one.
While the addition of Bob Crawford to The Avett Brothers has given the band's sound added urgency at large, he enables beautiful, arch ballads like this one. Without Crawford, "My Last Song to Jenny" would be a pleasant creeper where Seth sings tenderly about a relationship that's ending. Good, just not great. Crawford fills in the hollow here, his one-man string swells illustrating the emotional sea change at hand. People say a lot about The Avett Brothers' upbeat energy. That wouldn't matter half as much without downtrodden wonders like this.
An early indication of The Avett Brothers' pop possibilities, "At the Beach" is an anthem for a getaway. The sons of a welder who've worked relentlessly for the past eight years, Scott and Seth Avett forgo the worry of labor for these four minutes of sea spray. The guitar solo is pure ebullience, and the rhythm is carefree pep. After hearing this, good luck resisting the need to flee that office job.
"November Blue" was originally cut for 2002's Country Was, and a live take was included on the CD single for Mignonette's "Swept Away." This five-minute version, recorded Nov. 22, 2003, at Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte, N.C., captures half of the band's tempo range perfectly. Starting gently, the Avetts ask simple questions about how deep someone's love is: "If I had a job/ like a good man should ..." or "If I came to you tomorrow/ and said let's run away ..." The band eases into a gentle country trot as Scott sings about his heart dancing and, later, his head swirling with memories of her. Before long, they'd explore their quicker impulses while denouncing ol' "November Blue," even equating her to prison and hunger pains.
A year later, The Avett Brothers would release a track called "Paranoia in B-flat Major." But "Talk on Indolence"—the gambit of the band's 2006 full-length, Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions—suggests the same nervous unease. Over five rhythmically distinct sections (from something-like-rap at the start to hot ballad action in section three), the brothers ponder the problems of making it through young adulthood: Falling in love, getting too drunk to do anything but fall in love, getting too old to fall in love or to get too drunk to do anything but fall in love ... Since it's built on a series of openly impressionistic images, you'll see yourself somewhere in "Talk on Indolence," whether you're the addled, old hypochondriac that narrates or the lustful little lush he remembers so fondly.
Like a handful of Four Thieves Gone tracks, "Colorshow" stands as an indication of how many options The Avett Brothers—who'd already established a reputation as country-bluegrass punks—had and have: The usual acoustic suspects are here, but this is a rock 'n' roll anthem, nailing the beat to the floor with chunky piano chords and a full (if tempered) drum kit. There's screaming, bowed and distorted bass (I think), and lyrics fired by youthful, boisterous defiance: "Be loud, let your colors show/ Try to keep the madness low/ If they hear, and it's wrong, and they come with torches on/ Yeah, come on."
"Paranoia in B-flat Major" is another gem of self-doubt, but, relative to "Talk on Indolence," it's parsimoniously written and played. Scott fancies himself an outcast even among close friends, and Seth tries to find commiseration in the relentless worries of love. As the lyrics suggest, the music shifts every time it gets comfortable. Also, notice that the production on "Paranoia"—and its album, Emotionalism, in general—is more finessed than fans had come to expect from The Avett Brothers: Seth's banjo sounds a bit like a choir during the brief intro, and the glockenspiel that dots the points of the melody is quietly played but sharply captured. Well done.
One of a half-dozen songs in the Avetts' "Pretty Girl From ..." series, "Pretty Girl from Chile" quickly interlaces banjo with guitar with bass. The simple start continues when Scott chimes in, apologizing for his halfway hard heart and fully fleeing fancy: "I'd like to say I'm a faithful man/ But it may not be true," he sings. The song sashays just before its halfway point into a Latin rhythm channeled through a Southern jangle, apropos of the girl's name, Gabriella. Two more strange turns: The song fades into an archived voicemail from the woman in question, then explodes into a meaty, electric guitar-driven last minute. On record, the execution is a little thin, but live—with the band switching instruments and reverting to its collegiate cacophony—it's something to behold.
Sitting on the tour bus as it headed to Pittsburgh, Scott Avett talked about maintaining his career on the road, even though his wife was at home in the early stages of pregnancy: "I don't like the idea that a child could get the wrong idea about what it is their dad does just by other people telling them. ... I would quit everything we're doing for that, to make sure everything is taken care of." The gorgeous "If It's the Beaches," from the first of two The Gleam EPs, captures a rising rock star balancing life goals with outside expectations, vowing, "I will rearrange my plans and change for you." Juxtaposed with songs about other women who were left behind, it's a powerful testament to sticking around and staying true.
Scott Avett's voice—confident, cool, confiding—has perhaps never sounded better than it does on "St. Joseph's," The Gleam II's fifth-track counterpart of The Gleam's "If It's the Beaches." The topic is the archetype of finding safety in love in a world that rages all around. Scott renews it here through specificity: He and his love fight for sanity in a crowded, feverish hospital, and he argues over wedding plans at Lake Junaluska, which sits at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the end, he stops thinking and starts treasuring: "I give up on trying to understand why we were blessed."
Given the songs and the information above, there's not much to say about this one, which functions like a late-written thesis statement for a band whose embrace of honesty, family and friends courses through its catalog.