For the record: Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons
The Avett Brothers 'The Carpenter' (Universal Republic)
3 stars = Good
Mumford & Sons 'Babel' (Glassnote)
3 stars = Good
The two bands shared the stage, along with that guy Dylan, at the Grammys in early 2011, and one of them came out of it with a huge post-show bounce.
It wasn't the Avett Brothers.
The veteran North Carolina bluegrass/punk band, known for tearing it up live, took a more nuanced approach while British upstarts Mumford & Sons ramped it up and chewed the scenery with "The Cave." A week later, its 2009 debut, "Sigh No More," shot to No. 2 on the album charts, 14 points higher than the Avetts went with their brilliant sixth album "I And Love and You."
Now, the two bands have released their follow-ups just weeks apart, and if you're looking for rousing anthems and barnstorming banjo jams you're going to want to look across the pond.
The Avett Brothers, under the helm of Rick Rubin for a second time, have polished the rough edges once again in service of a more elegant pop sound, while Mumford & Sons are playing like they have stadiums in their sights.
The growling, howling Marcus Mumford surely has studied Bono and Win Butler (Arcade Fire) closely, mastering that grand gesture and sounding at any moment like he's ready to blow. As the title suggests, he's studied his Bible, too, as there's an Old Testament scale to his teeth-clenched fury.
Some of these lyrics actually sound like they were lifted from the good book: "Should you shake my ash to the wind/Lord forget all of my sins/Oh let me die where I lie/'Neath the curse of my lovers' eyes."
The Avetts, having grown up on a Southern farm, are no strangers to religious imagery and mortal matters. The opening track "Once and Future Carpenter" has Scott Avett singing, "Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath me/And when I lose my direction I'll look up to the sky/And when the black cloak drags upon the ground/I'll be ready to surrender, and remember/Well we're all in this together/If I live the life I'm given, I won't be scared to die."
Those lofty lyrics aside, the Avetts tend to write and sing on a more intimate human scale, while also being more musically curious, from the doo-wop harmonies on "I Never Knew You" to the hard rock of "Paul Newman vs. The Demons," with a rare appearance of electric guitar. At times, when the strings get syrupy, like on Seth Avetts' "Through My Prayers," it delves a little too much into easy listening.
But the Avetts have that talent for being rowdy hillbillies one minute and disarmingly, plain-spokenly beautiful the next, as on Scott's love song to his baby daughter, "A Fathers First Spring," when he sings, "I never lived till I lived in your light/And my heart never beat like it does at the sight/Of you baby blue God blessed your life."
The Mumfords have less mileage and fewer gears, staying in a similar up-tempo vein of fist-pumping folk-rock that won't fail to rouse their following. Conversely, the Avetts, while offering a richer experience, might disappoint theirs by not hooting and hollering.
-- Scott Mervis
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-- PG staff and PopMatters.com
First Published September 27, 2012 12:00 am