A cub music critic tackles artists and albums virgin to his ears
Published: January 26, 2011
The Avett Brothers
At first glance, the Avett Brothers could be cut from the same fake indie-country mold as roughly contiguous bands, such as the fairly decent Blitzen Trapper and the mildly annoying Old Crow Medicine Show (whose ubiquitous "Wagon Wheel" is used by drunken rural college students and West Hollywood gym instructors to pretend they like "roosty" music). And I mean literally at first glance — the band's two frontmen, Scott and Seth Avett (yes, they're brothers, which makes their band name descriptive rather than contrived!) sport conspicuous hipster beards whose bushiness fluctuates wildly with each Google image search result. However, given that they've been around for more than a decade and boast a large, loyal underground fan base and are from North Carolina and not Williamsburg, they deserve a second look.
It doesn't help their case so much, though, that the Avetts' latest full-length, I And Love And You, is, to its detriment, a little bipolar. It alternates, somewhat jarringly, between various Jeff Tweedy swipes and annoyingly overly serious piano ballads with cringe-worthy lyrics such as "I wanna have friends that I can trust/ That love me for the man I've become and not that man I was" (from the dirge-like "The Perfect Space").
But the Tweedy-ish songs are successful more often than not — a few, particularly those sporting traditional string band arrangements, such as "January Wedding" and "Ten Thousand Words," are downright gorgeous, with their gentle beds of banjo, mandolin and understated guitar pickin'. Even some of the peppier, more rock-oriented songs such as "And It Spread" and "Tin Man" (which are just much like Wilco, to be sure; add an overzealous piano line to "War on War" and you've got "Kick Drum Heart") contain their fair share of decent melody. These songs sound legitimately sincere, in intention and execution, rather than distractingly overearnest like, say, the title track. Maybe they can transfer this sincerity into a legitimate sense of catharsis onstage and prove that, once and for all, they're not full of shit. —Friday, Jan. 28
The Swell Season
The Swell Season is, in reality, that couple from the movie Once, which was the big indie success story of whatever year it came out and is actually a pretty good film as far as low-budget romances between struggling European musicians go. I guess they had to have a real band name ... going on tour as "The People Who Brought You the Soundtrack from Once" might've gotten a little tiresome after a while.
Thus, the band's two members are an established pairing — Glen Hansard, former frontman of the Frames, who were, as is obligatorily mentioned beside every single printing of Hansard's name as if it were an apology, "big in Ireland" (perhaps the most damning of all faint praise considering bands who are "big in Ireland"), and Czech songstress Markéta Irglov. The two also have some intra-band romantic intrigue going for them. In addition to undertaking an on-screen romance, they undertook a real one before promptly breaking up but resolving to continue on as a band. Awkward!
The Swell Season has two albums, the more recent of which, Strict Joy, is not only inappropriately titled, as it's virtually absent of any joy, but also chronologically falls after both Once and Hansard and Irglov's breakup. You can smell the trouble at this point; if the idea of an album of nothing but lovesick, balladic, adult contemporary folk breakup songs written by the band members about each other makes you want to puke, who's to judge? However, the band mostly sticks to the formula that made the Once soundtrack a hit — that "balladic, adult contemporary folk" thing actually done well, with verve.
Yes, they make music geared toward oversensitive college girls and, yes, the album gets plenty morose and overbearing by the end. But "High Horses" and "The Rain" build to impressively tense, stirring climaxes, while "Low Rising" is a neat Van Morrison-type thing and the Crosby, Stills & Nash-esque "Love That Conquers" is disarmingly sweet-sounding. Hansard undoubtedly has good songwriting instincts. As far as mopey breakup songs go, there are worse things to listen to (James Blunt). —Saturday, Jan. 29
With few exceptions, probably the most efficient way of becoming a successful musician today (in the "getting people to listen to you" sense, not the "making great music" sense) is to write and perform songs that are as generic and faceless as possible. Seriously. Most people around here like their music on a very even keel — few surprises or raw edges, and sounding vaguely like something they've heard before. Yup, that's how we like it. Transparent and predictable. For instance, Kings of Leon used to be good, before they became U2.
Judging by his most recent effort, The Rainwater LP, Clarence Greenwood, aka Citizen Cope, has taken this knowledge to heart. He hails from Memphis but operates from Brooklyn and once opened for Nelly Furtado of "I'm Like a Bird" fame. His formula is to take his utterly vanilla Jack Johnson-like acoustic songs and sprinkle them with a tired, watered-down funkiness (supplied by a few stuttering drum beats and annoying buzzing synth noises here and there) that's only vaguely hinted at so as not to startle napping old folk who might be within earshot. In addition, said formula is not to be deviated from. Ever. Essentially, it's the exact same kind of music you've heard 18,000 times if you've ever been inside a Starbucks. Sure, Citizen Cope isn't any more egregiously offensive than any other of his macchiato-friendly peers. But that's the thing — you can't truthfully call it bad music if you can't remember what it sounds like five seconds after you hear it.
Greenwood will be playing solo at Folk Fest, but he might bring his drum loops! —Friday, Jan 28
The Ann Arbor Folk Festival happens Friday and Saturday, Jan. 28-29, at the Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-764-2538. Show starts at 6:30 p.m. each night. For more information and a complete schedule, see theark.org.
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