That Old-Time Feeling
The new wave of string bands evolves
Published: September 11, 2012
The new wave string bands that emerged in the early years of this century were parties in an ingenious movement. Most of the musicians in the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Devil Makes Three, Uncle Earl, Crooked Still, the Duhks, the Mammals, and the Hackensaw Boys were former punk rockers who had picked up acoustic instruments. With no need for amps, they could suddenly play on street corners or in meadows, and their lyrics could be heard as never before. They weren’t imitating the baby boomer generation by playing bluegrass or folk rock. By turning instead to the pre-bluegrass genre of old-time mountain music, they could connect to a tradition older than their parents and still play as fast and hard as they had as punks.
“Fast and hard” was the key concept in those early years, as the bands built followings attracted by the novelty of banjos and fiddles attacked with thrashing energy. But energy is the cheapest commodity in pop music; anyone’s who’s young enough and hungry enough can play with a lot of energy. As a result, it was often hard to distinguish one 20-something string band from another. The groups quickly realized, if they were going to separate themselves from the crowd, they were going to have to come up with something different. That difference could have been virtuosity, but that seemed antithetical to the movement’s spirit. No, the difference would have to be songwriting.
It is now 10 years since the Avett Brothers released their first full-length album, Country Was, and that trio has emerged, along with Old Crow Medicine Show, from the crowded field of New Wave string bands as genuine stars. And both groups have done it by writing new songs more ambitious than mere rewrites of old hillbilly and blues numbers.
The Avett Brothers, who perform at the Pier Six Pavilion Sept. 23, have just released The Carpenter, their second album with producer Rick Rubin, of Run-DMC and Johnny Cash fame. The first one, 2009’s I and Love and You, reached No. 16 on the pop charts, and this one should do even better. Scott and Seth Avett, the North Carolina siblings who started the band with bassist Bob Crawford, have stretched the string-band sound to include elements such as electric guitars, organ, cello, minor-key changes, pop bridges, and melodies that owe more to the Beatles than to the Carter Family.
The new album’s first single, “Live and Die,” may begin with Scott’s banjo intro, but each time the bridge repeats the same melody contour, it’s over a different chord and at a higher pitch, climbing the musical stairs into a finger-snapping, Beatles-esque chorus that’s insanely catchy. On “Pretty Girl from Michigan,” the latest in the trio’s series of “Pretty Girl from . . . ” songs, the Avetts replace the banjo with a piano as Scott belts out bar-band rock ’n’ roll like Paul McCartney on “Oh, Darling,” before adding electric guitar and cello breaks.
The cello, played by longtime associate member Joe Kwon, is even more prominent on Seth’s ballads, such as “Winter in My Heart,” “Through My Prayers,” and “February Seven.” These slow, melancholy numbers have ambitious harmonies that the cello and keys flesh out into Nick Drake-like chamber rock. Even on up-tempo numbers like “Paul Newman vs. the Demons,” Seth favors the quirky pop-rock chord changes of the Fountains of Wayne.
The Avett Brothers still have problems with lyrics, however. Scott’s an awkward phrasemaker, too often trying to stretch a single syllable over two notes, sticking stiffly to quarter notes, or putting the musical emphasis on an inconsequential word. Seth’s a smoother wordsmith, but he has a weakness for awkward allegories (“a woman we call Purpose”) and New Age cliches (“I went on the search for something real”). The Carpenter is nonetheless an appealing album, if only for its musical pleasures, but in stretching the limits of the string-band format, the Avett Brothers too often abandon it entirely.
Remaining faithful to the format and providing some of the best lyrics in pop music today is Old Crow Medicine Show, which performs as part of A Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration at the Kennedy Center Oct. 14. The Nashville band’s new album, Carry Me Back, produced by Ted Hutt of Gaslight Anthem fame, is an all-acoustic affair, but the music rocks and the words bite. It reached No. 22 on Billboard’s pop albums chart and is destined for more than a few critics’ year-end 10-best lists.
Ketch Secor, the band’s fiddler, has matured into a master of the songwriting bait-and-switch. In “Carry Me Back to Virginia,” for example, the song begins as a rousing evocation of young Confederate soldiers plunging into battle, but the later verses, with freezing survivors huddling against horse corpses, strip all the romanticism from war. “We Don’t Grow Tobacco” begins as a lament about the cruel conditions on the tobacco farms but ends with a lament about unemployment when the farms close down. “Bootlegger’s Boy” begins as a romanticized view of the moonshining life but ends in violence and regret. Time and again the band pulls the rug out from under our assumptions, but they always provide music of enough beauty and strength to catch us when we fall.
The Devil Makes Three, which performs at the 8x10 Tuesday, Sept. 18, has also remained true to its string-band roots. This trio, founded by Vermont pals Pete Bernhard and Cooper McBean and completed by bassist Lucia Turino in California, lives up to the title of its latest album, Stomp and Smash, a live recording that summarizes the achievements of the band’s earlier studio efforts: a propulsive energy equal to any New Wave string band, and an irreverent sense of humor that distinguishes the act from the Avett Brothers’ sentimentality and Old Crow’s ironic edge.
Stomp and Smash begins with “For Good Again,” a self-deprecating version of the band’s early history, featuring “rednecks looking to sexually experiment” and a rock band “you probably never heard of.” A new song, “This Life,” is a kind of sequel that describes the lot of a traveling musician as “driving 35 miles-an-hour across that Texas heat . . . three mechanics in a hundred miles and nothing’s wrong,” recommending that you get a job at a grocery store instead. The title track from the band’s 2009 studio album, Do Wrong Right, advises that if you’re going to screw up, screw up with style. It’s not easy to write songs as witty as these—just think how few examples there are—but Bernhard has the knack. And it’s fresh songwriting like this that’s going to keep the New Wave string-band movement alive.
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