4/5 stars

A little bit of banjo punk-rock sensibility, a tendency toward infectious beats, impressive songwriting abilities and a rapidly growing, devoted fan base:  Put it all into a Mason jar, shake it up a bit to a honky-tonk tune, and you have the Avett Brothers.

With the release of The Carpenter, their seventh studio album, that wonderfully incongruous recipe for crowd-pleasing Americana has changed.

The Avett Brothers, formed in 2000 in North Carolina by brothers Scott and Seth, first gained national buzz with the 2009 release of I and Love and You, an album that reaches as much for infectious hooks and engaging fraternal harmonies as it does for universal truths.  The album was a critical success, receiving an incredible amount of radio play and leading them to be named the “Artist to Watch 2009” by Rolling Stone Magazine.

Working with producer Rick Rubin allowed the band to create a more pop-infused sound that reached a larger audience and won them a spot performing with Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons at the 2011 Grammy Awards.

The Carpenter is the second Avett Brothers album produced by Rubin.  Impressive marketing efforts for the album have been underway for months: partnerships with Cheerwine, appearances in Gap television spots, and well-marketed releases on National Public Radio’s All Songs Considered and First Listen programs went hand-in-hand with intimate videos of band members at home with their families and visiting sights on the road.

This new release is a development of a more polished, careful style.  Gone are the days when Scott and Seth need to stomp around on stage, breaking banjo strings with every song and screaming until their voices crack. The Carpenter flirts with more piano melodies, catchier hooks and a heavier electric guitar presence.  The band is growing up; they have families of their own and more serious careers than ever before.  This album has the potential to make them superstars, so they had better start acting like it.

The Carpenter, like every Avett Brothers album, takes the listener on a journey: from emotional highs to lows to frenetic songs of frustration to quiet tunes of peace and resignation.  There is enough banjo and kick drum to keep longtime fans hooked: “Live and Die”, released on All Songs Considered in July, features just that.  “Pretty Girl from Michigan,” which the band has been playing under different titles and in different styles since 2008, offers a bluesy song of lost love reminiscent of Elvis Presley and Fats Domino. “Winter in My Heart” adds to the list of peaceful Avett ballads, with Scott’s rich vocals floating over a few quiet guitar chords and cello notes.  Overall, the album offers something for both new Avett fans and longtime devotees.

Despite the varied styles and themes in The Carpenter’s songs, there is one common element that will keep fans coming back, just like it always has:  The band’s expertly crafted lyrics have always been sung with incredible feeling. This album is no different.  Coupled with an impressive and diverse album promotion program, The Carpenter will be a force to be reckoned with.

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