Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009

The Avett Brothers and the Redemption of Rick Rubin

By Evan Rytlewski
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And with one lovely, understated gesture, The Avett Brothers' I and Love and You, Rick Rubin has nearly atoned for destroying Weezer.

Lionized though the guy may be, Rubin is an overzealous producer, one whose vision sometimes trumps that of the artist he's recording. He's celebrated for returning Johnny Cash to his roots, but he also fed Cash some truly trite, overblown cover songs ("Bridge Over Troubled Water," anybody?) Rubin also stripped Lincoln Park and Neil Diamond of their fun excesses, reduced Metallica to a Metallica nostalgia act, and pushed Weezer to indulge some of the worst ideas they've ever come up with (possibly while shelving much better Weezer songs). Rubin can be a visionary producer, but he can also be an overbearing, sometime aggressively misguided one.

The Avett Brothers' I and Love and You, however, is a reminder of what Rubin does right. At his best he's a just-press-play kind of guy, encouraging artists to let their songs speak for themselves without frills and flourishes, and save for the occasional cello kiss or horn accent, he strips the songs on the Avetts' major-label debut to their essence. The banjos are toned down as pianos carries new weight, the vocals are subdued (no bluegrass twang here), and even the rock 'n' roll influence that once defined this folk group has been tamed. What's left is a straightforward roots album that proudly stands by its songs and relishes its quiet moments. That's not to say the album is humorless—"Kick Drum Heart" lets the band burn off some of their energy; "Tin Man" is plucky good fun, and even the bummer ballad "The Perfect Space" gives way to a barn-burning second act—but most of the Avetts’ amateurish impulses have been sanded away, leaving behind a record that’s unexpectedly elegant.

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