It was the exact revelation that music festivals are designed to provide. The Avett Brothers, about whom I'd known next to nothing, took the stage at last month's Outside Lands festival in Golden Gate Park and proceeded to blow my mind, song by song, brain cell by brain cell. Banging away on banjo, standup bass and guitar, singing the most locked-in-step mountain harmonies since the Louvin Brothers and working a kickdrum and hi-hat with their feet, they completely overtook me. They were "Thunder Road," "Death or Glory" and "Foggy Mountain Top" all wrapped in one passionate, gritty, string-breaking performance of sweat and heart.
The Avett Brothers' new album, I and Love and You, out this week, is produced by Rick Rubin, who is famous for capturing on tape the true, unadorned performances of artists from Johnny Cash to Slayer. The record certainly has a warm, being-in-the-same-room atmosphere that Rubin has always easily created, but the live energy is gone. If there's a problem with I and Love and You, it's that the Avetts themselves were too cautiously prepared; no one's picky in front of thousands, but perfectionism thrives in front of a foam-core studio sound baffle. In the recording business, this is called "pre-production," the task of poring over rough demos, rearranging choruses and making everything sound nice before recording. Pre-production is essentially editing before the editor gets a hold of things, and Rubin, the famously nonediting editor, would likely have counseled against it.
That said, nighttimes spent in studio apartments with cheap beer and broken pencils now have a new soundtrack. Comprising almost entirely slow, pensive songs, I and Love and You swings from lonesome to hopeful and back again. "The Perfect Space" imagines a house-clearing of drunk hangers-on in exchange for "friends that I can trust, that love me for the man I'll become, not the man I was," and "January Wedding" is a simple, literary explanation for matrimony: "I hope that I don't sound too insane when I say there is darkness all around us," sings Scott Avett. "I don't feel weak, but I do need sometimes for her to protect me and re-connect me to the beauty that I'm missing." On record, the song is a candle, lit in honor of those who fill our brittle cracks, made for the moments when we wind down together. Onstage, I'd bet it's unruly as hell.