Commercial potential? The Avetts have it in spades, so don't be surprised if this disc blows up big. After building a grassroots following independently, the North Carolina trio signed to Rick Rubin's American label, and the man himself produced this, their fifth album. It's ready for primetime, as Rubin has softened their bluegrass/alt-country edge and given the sound a sonic sheen ― such studio heavyweights as Benmont Tench and Lenny Castro contribute. Thankfully, the songwriting and vocal prowess of brothers Seth and Scott Avett remain intact, though some of the poppier material is misguided. "Kick Drum Heart," for instance, has a piano-fuelled Billy Joel meets Ben Folds feel, while "Slight Figure Of Speech" is another slight pop rocker. Sparser tunes like "January Wedding" and the haunting "Ten Thousand Words" and "Laundry Room" work better. For a roots-y trio, their sound is often far from stripped-down. "Head Full Of Doubt, Road Full Of Promise" has the kind of full-blooded sound that helped Counting Crows sell millions of records, but the song is a strong one. The Avetts are known for deeply introspective and philosophical lyrics, and that trait is evident here. They occasionally flirt with sentimentality, as on the title track, while Seth's mission statement verges on the pretentious, but, at their best, their songs dig deep. The group may alienate some original fans with their polished sound but are on the cusp of major success.
Stylistically, this sounds less roots-y than your earlier albums. Was that a conscious mandate?
Scott: We had 25 to 30 demos and they were mostly written on piano and drums and guitar ― very little banjo. That is just where Seth and I were when we went in to carve out some of these song sketches. The banjo was in more songs but it was coming off as abrasive, at times, so we removed it from the recording.
Seth: But there was never a point where we went: "this album needs to be less like bluegrass or roots"; it was what it was. That is still a big part of who we are. We're excited to try new things. A really fun dynamic is to do things in the studio then go, "how are we going to do this live?" That can be real scary.
Did Rick Rubin have a lot of input on the songs?
Scott: It was less technical and more the arrangement, mood and tempo of the songs, rather than the instrumentation. He managed through letting us lead. He delegated the front of the line to us, then he'd come in behind and go: "let's try this or this." If we had serious reservations about something, he wouldn't push it. He just wanted to encourage us to try things before we said "no" to them. That was brilliant for us because we may not have been quite as good at that in the past. We might have gone, "this take is true, it has the feeling; we won't do it again." This record, we did it and did it and did it. Sometimes we found the peak and the valley, then a new peak, something we'd never found before. (American/Sony)