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Album review: The Avett Brothers' 'I and Love and You'

September 29, 2009 |  7:02 pm

AVETT_BRO

For the Avett Brothers, bluegrass is hard-core, and country is emo. This North Carolina band plows a familiar field by blending folk idioms with punk, playing against the surface incongruities of the two forms while unearthing the deeper connections. Punk and folk are both heartfelt and showily handmade, and share a central yearning for that tricky grounding element -- authenticity. With soaring harmonies, Southern twang and lyrics that evoke both Walt Whitman and Will Oldham, the Avetts fit right in to this particular syncretic tradition.

What's distinctive about the Avetts -- singing, multi-instrumentalist siblings Seth and Scott and artistically adopted stand-up bassist Bob Crawford, plus a step-member, cellist Joe Kwon -- is a dedication to exploring a specific dynamic: the intense expression of soft emotions. This focus is refined and made beautifully accessible on the band's Rick Rubin-shepherded major label debut, which follows a busy near-decade of independent releases and constant touring.

"I and Love and You" is so earnest that more skeptical listeners might laugh out loud at its wider-eyed pronouncements. These are not college sophomores, and yet they make their girlfriends look at the stars, fret about whether they're making art and intone about how tough it is to say those three words in the title track.

What makes this cultivated innocence bearable, besides the band's sprightly playing and ravishing sense of melody, is the diligence with which the Avett brothers, who write the material, and their bandmates explore the subject of sentimentality. Each cliché is honed and nurtured, making these songs both the expression of feelings that startle and a meditation on how and why feelings can be so disordering.

Rubin, who's known for helping artists get down to the bare essentials, reins in the raucousness that often led to sloppiness on previous releases and encourages the Avetts to experiment, but carefully. The New Wave-y "Kick Drum Heart" and the almost Springsteen-esque "Slight Figure of Speech" vary the flavors here; so does "January Wedding," a straight-up bluegrass tune that Pete Seeger might have sung 50 years ago.

Seeger, of course, has been both a preserver of tradition and a rabble-rouser. Too much reverence turns folk music dull, but the genre always presents new ways to affect its own renewal. The Avett Brothers have hit upon a winning approach, and this album is another step in their taking it beyond the obvious.

-- Ann Powers

The Avett Brothers
"I and Love and You"
(American Recordings)
Three stars (Out of four)
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