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First Listen: The Avett Brothers, 'Magpie And The Dandelion'

NPR icon by Stephen Thompson
Danny Clinch

Seth and Scott Avett aren't content to merely play gorgeous roots music; to just lay some lovely harmonies over banjos and strings. Performing as The Avett Brothers — with bassist Bob Crawford, cellist Joe Kwon and others — they craft alternately stompy and swoony music that's rooted in a desire for self-improvement. Take their body of work as a whole, and it forms the outlines of a makeshift guide to life, and to being fundamentally decent in the pursuit of something even better.

That overarching philosophy — an animating principle beyond a mere love of music-making — has long driven the Avetts as they write catchy, searching, quotable songs that resonate beyond the moments they occupy. On the largely pensive new Magpie and the Dandelion, the brothers spend a good deal of time examining the push and pull between their day-to-day pressures and impulses (a need to tour in "Good to You," the pursuit of responsibility-free rootlessness in "Open Ended Life") and a need for connection, contentedness and openness to wonder.

As with The Carpenter (also produced by Rick Rubin, and released a mere 13 months ago), Magpie and the Dandelion largely eschews the raw, jittery energy that so often infuses The Avett Brothers' early work. Instead, it's a solemn, ballad-driven album — less mortality-minded than its predecessor, but still seeking poignancy and meaning in lives lived messily. For fans who've followed Crawford's young daughter's battle with a brain tumor, the proud verse he sings in "Good to You" hits especially hard, while "Apart From Me" follows that song with another patch of thoughtfully elegant, exquisitely polished gloom.

The Avett Brothers' music is, as always, too warm to be simply maudlin: Even at its most low-key, Magpie and the Dandelion (out Oct. 15) conveys kindly rendered intimacy in every note. Taken as a whole, it feels like a calmly loving missive from friends who offer wise counsel, but know well enough to interrogate their own motives along the way.

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