The Avett Brothers
"I and Love and You"
* * *
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 cliche 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
Pop-punk shifts into higher vision
* * * 1/2
The boys of AFI are goth lifers -- though it's not the makeup (well, not entirely) but their message. The dozen tracks on the band's latest, "Crash Love," once again mourn decay and romance gone wrong over sweeping, layered post-punk guitars. To singer-lyricist Davey Havok, love is an endlessly tragic and anxious state: "I'd tear out my eyes for you, my dear / anything to see everything that you do."
Produced by Joe McGrath and Jacknife Lee with the band, "Crash Love" is AFI's most confident, enjoyable album yet. Though there remain echoes of the Cure, the Smiths and many other morose pop heroes from the 1980s, the result feels more organic now, rooted in the genuinely bleak and hopeless rather than the simply theatrical sounds of My Chemical Romance.
Within the collection's tightly crafted 43 minutes is music of gloom, force and energy. The band finds hope and something approaching joy in the rousing, anthemic "Beautiful Thieves," and Jade Puget's guitars sound bright enough for endless radio rotation on "Veronica Sawyer Smokes." Hard-core riffs lurk beneath the pleading vocals on "Sacrilege."
The music of AFI wasn't always as daring as its fashion sense, but the NoCal band has grown with accelerating sophistication, stepping further beyond easy pop-punk thrashings to something grander, with music to match the mopey melodrama of Havok's words.
-- Steve Appleford
Definitely wild about that voice
Karen O and the Kids
"Where the Wild Things Are"
* * *
Earlier this year, on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' terrific "It's Blitz!," frontwoman Karen O demonstrated that she's as effective weaving her voice into a wall of synth-heavy alt-rock as she ever was wailing over the band's stripped-down garage punk.
Now, with this soundtrack to her ex-boyfriend Spike Jonze's big-screen adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are," Karen O proves she's capable of still more, floating her ethereal vocals over charmingly ramshackle folk-pop arrangements long on the kind of acoustic instruments you might find in a children's music class.
Karen O is actually co-billed here with the Kids, a sprawling group of indie-rock all-stars that includes Deerhunter singer Bradford Cox, Greg Kurstin of the Bird and the Bee, a pair of Raconteurs and her fellow Yeah Yeah Yeahs. An actual kids' choir lends the ensemble's name some credibility on several tracks.
Yet it's Karen O's unique singing -- imagine a post-punk take on a '40s-era jazz chanteuse -- that defines this music, even when it blows up to Arcade Fire-style proportions, as in "All Is Love" and "Rumpus," both of which culminate in tiny-army shout-alongs. In "Hideaway," the album's prettiest cut, she sounds even more vulnerable than she did on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' hit ballad "Maps."
Not surprisingly, given its origin, not everything here works as well on record as it does in the movie, where a meandering tune-fragment like "Cliffs" adds emotional flesh to the minimalist bones of Jonze's story. Even then, though, there's that voice.
-- Mikael Wood