Ostensibly a bluegrass trio (brothers Scott and Seth Avett both sing, respectively playing banjo and acoustic guitar; Bob Crawford plays upright bass), the North Carolina band's latest disc is profoundly unafraid musically, lyrically and -- most of all -- emotionally.
Pairing durable melodies with roughshod accompaniment, the band exudes a simple back-porch vibe. Scott strums his banjo for a cruder, more percussive effect than traditional bluegrass' laser-sharp fingerpicking. No member is trying to be a virtuoso player, the band is a rhythm section. All three members revel in breaking down seemingly staid songs into forceful bridges, songs within songs, and skeletal country thrash. The Avetts impress acoustic force on a listener like no band since the Violent Femmes and that really makes the vocals pop.
Siblings tend to harmonize well and the Avetts are a great argument for why there should be more family bands. Both brothers deliver lyrics in lean, athletic tenors projecting their voices past "pretty" and into something far more lasting. Like their instrumentation, the Avetts' singing is and better for it. These are young, good-looking, stylish guys, but their intent to shed any and all trendy vocal affectations is shocking for its total realization: As soon as they start singing, the Avetts don't sound like anyone else.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & cott and Seth, leaning hard on their vocal chords, arrive at destinations more self-conscious singers simply cannot. For example, the borderline ridiculous falsetto breakdown in Emotionalism's single, "Paranoia in B-flat Major," has the brothers imitating a chorus of backyard bells without accompaniment. It is a brave bit of imperfect harmony that gets its point across perfectly: soprano-level gasps hang naked, only to be cut through with propulsive strumming and a loud "Yeah!" Also notable is the album's opener, "Die Die Die," in which the brothers own their individual timbres -- Seth's is a little throatier than Scott's -- and harmonize without trying to sound like a vocal unit. Worlds removed from the exacting grace of Simon and Garfunkel, the brothers yell/sing as if across a crowded room from each other, meeting with richness, passion and individuality intact. There's nothing subdued about it.
While the sound of Emotionalism carries plenty of feeling, the Avetts distance themselves from any and all competition with their lyrics, the best of which appear on the stunning plea for forgiveness, "Shame."
"I wrote 'Shame' and Seth convinced me to put that one on [Emotionalism]," Scott said, adding he was initially nervous no one would understand it. "The hardest thing about writing stuff like this is being convinced that anybody's gonna get it. That's the biggest risk an artist takes."
The song begins slowly with garden-variety laments of a man that took a lover for granted. He wants the love he could have had, regrets his prior carelessness, and says he's different now. It might not matter -- perhaps the damage is done. It's pretty, but the stock melodrama turns startlingly real during the song's zooming bridge:
"My heart was always fairly cold / Posing to be as warm as yours/ My way of getting in your world / But now I'm out and I've had time / To look around and think / And sink into another worldThat's filled with guilt and overwhelming shame."
The effect is hot catharsis, a sinner bitterly acknowledging destructive parts of his own psychology. It's about the hurt that comes from acting false but the understated lyrics suggest deep insecurities without gratuitously digging them up. "Shame" exposes, as do many songs on Emotionalism, the ways in which a little reality could save us all lots of pain.
The Avetts have their own sound, but they also have a distinctive ethical voice. Scott identifies it as "Something that makes you hot behind your eyes." Whatever it is, there's justice in it.
"The form of songwriting needs to be some form of communication that people can relate to and understand. The goal is spoken English," says Scott.
Emotional honesty expressed clearly: that's how the Avett Brothers keep it real.
The Inlander and Bravo Entertainment present the Avett Brothers at the Big Easy on Saturday, August 4, at 7:30 pm. $15. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.