The Avett Brothers have been on quite a musical journey of evolving their sound over the past decade, going from a trio playing acoustic guitar, banjo and stand-up bass to what is now a seven-member lineup that can build considerably on the group's scrappy, stripped-back acoustic beginnings.
The big shift came with the 2009 album, I and Love and You. Produced by Rick Rubin, it found the Avett Brothers retaining their acoustic foundation, but broadened their instrumental and stylistic reach to the point that the group could no longer be considered simply folk or acoustic.
The next two albums, 2012's The Carpenter and 2014's Magpie and the Dandelion, continued down that path. And now, Seth Avett, who started the group with his older brother, Scott, in 2000, feels the new Avett Brothers album, True Sadness, represents another leap forward for the group.
"This one's a major one in terms of me reframing what I think the Avett Brothers sound like," Avett said of True Sadness in a recent phone interview. "You know, it's a funny thing. For an artist, they really love to be surprised by some thing they're making that doesn't sound like them. Whereas a lot of times the listener is like 'I don't want to hear, like if I want to hear calypso, I'm going to listen to a calypso artist. I don't go to the Avett Brothers to hear calypso music.' And I get that. But I hope, what I feel like is happening is we are opening ourselves up further, further and further in the aesthetics, to have no boundaries while hopefully staying heavily rooted in what makes us us, which is by and large some version of storytelling, I think."
True Sadness, which was released in June, is the most sonically adventurous, most instrumentally diverse — and arguably the most stylistically varied — album yet from the group. Recorded with the current seven-member touring band (bassist/fiddle player Bob Crawford, drummer Mike Marsh, keyboardist Paul Defiglia, cellist Joe Kwon and fiddle player Tania Elizabeth), the songs touch on a myriad of styles.
There's stomping pop delivered with bass, drum and a ragged choir on the first single, "Ain't No Man." "You Are Mine" takes jangly folk-rock and gives it a jolt with a big, fuzzed-up bass line and sprinkles of keyboard. "Fisher Road" is a gentle and pretty finger-picked acoustic ballad. "There Is A Sea" sounds like it was written for an epic western or seafaring movie soundtrack with its lush, swelling strings and expansive melody. "Satan" adds some psychedelia to its rowdy, twangy rock sound.
Like the previous three albums, True Sadness was produced by Rubin, whose work with the likes of Johnny Cash, Slayer, Tom Petty and ZZ Top, to name a few, has made him one of music's most respected producers.
The friendship and familiarity that has developed between Rubin and the band made for a great environment during the making of True Sadness, Avett said.
"There's just this friendship and there's this great mutual respect," Avett said. "So it really sort of freed us up to have a lot of fun and have a lot of experimentation with just a good friend. I think it makes for better work because there are no nerves in it and because we're that much further along in our growth."
The two Avett brothers remained the songwriters on True Sadness, but Avett said the other band members, more than ever, brought their influences and ideas to the table and had a big hand in how the songs grew from their bare bones beginnings to the versions heard on the album. For the most part, he said, the songs developed organically as the other musicians got involved.
"We have, I think, a very good, very natural sort of rhythm within our communication where Scott and I are able to present our visions for a song," Avett said. "You just have faith in the players and you don't have to micromanage everything ... I think we all have enough experience where we can come to a great agreement, normally without saying anything at all."