Friday, August 16, 2013

Tangential to Birding Music Review: The Carpenter by The Avett Brothers

It happened again this last week. Yes, I got judged by my binoculars.

This shouldn't be a problem and it doesn't really bother me, except when people insist "you should borrow some binoculars" after I politely say no thank you that I am fine with the crappy ones I have. Even then it doesn't actually bother me so much, but more annoys me because it can come across as condescending, and I could only imagine how that might turn off new or beginning birders.

I'm not immune to having that sort of attitude, though. Last Saturday I was with a birding group and a couple of novice birders were there who would not put the god damn binocular strap around their neck. I suggested that they really should, but one person politely said no thank you and let the comfortable looking strap dangle just asking to be dropped. If I could afford real binoculars I would appreciate them and treat them well, and not having the strap around your neck takes just too much effort that it seems like they were going out of their way to not respect the equipment. At least one of them owned their own pair; the younger guy borrowed one and just somewhat wrapped them around his hand.

They were non-birders and you could spot them a mile away despite having acceptable birding binoculars. If you looked at my bins and their bins only and asked who was the birder, you would be totally wrong. It is like the people on the Cape May bird walks (that I went on last week) who have good binoculars and even a scope but ask what the birds in the sky were (they were Purple Martins) and what bird was calling (it was a Carolina Wren). Having good equipment can help you, but they don't make you better. The skill and talent and practice are what make the difference.

This point was driven home one time when I was at the Christ the King Oktoberfest in Lexington, Kentucky a few years ago. It is a large gathering with festival stuff and drinking and eating and bingo and games and crafts, but they also had (while I was there at least) quite a good selection of live music that plays over the course of two days. So a singer who I like was playing there a few years back (he played a few years in a row, oddly enough), and I got a reprieve from the kids (I only had 2 at the time) and went there early to hang out before he went on, early enough to see the act right before him.

It wasn't much to look at, just a tall, lanky guy singing with a guitar and a guy with a beard playing mandolin and harmonica plus providing backing vocals. That's it, just two voices and two instruments (at a time). Oh my god it was an amazing performance. I immediately went home and bought Justin Townes Earle's CD.

But if you just looked at a couple of ratty guys with a couple of instruments it doesn't jump out at you, yet they were awesome.

With that in mind, what are we to make of this CD I have right here?

Note the strategically placed background so you remember this is really about birding
I like the Avett Brothers a lot; they are another of those groups (like Justin Townes Earle) that immediately hit me when heard them the first time. Heck, this isn't even the first time I've mentioned them here! Their next album had a bird in the title too, so you know you'll hear more from me on them.

So, before the record previous to this one they got a major label record deal and a big-name producer (Rick Rubin). And oh, a producing he sure did! One surefire way to tell when a something is overproduced is by looking at the instrumentation: is there extra percussion all over? Is Hammond organ on most songs, such to fill the sonic space up? Are there horns? An orchestra? Many, many backup singers?

The good news? There isn't an orchestra or lots of backup singers on this album. But they load up on the percussion and Hammond (and do note that I like the Hammond Organ, but I also like harmonica and know its limitations).

Beyond that, though, everything just has a smoothly cut, really overly produced feel to it where it seems like it was purposefully done. Let's take a look to compare a song. Here is Down With the Shine from the CD:

Yes, you hear horns and chimes and drum flourishes...which may not be a big deal, but here listen to a live version played at the NPR studio (it is the second song on here, but dammit listen to the first one too because it is awesome):

It is stripped down more because it is has to be in that setting, but Jesus Christ it is a much better version. The studio one (which came out years after the NPR live version) is more careful, more smoothed over, more boring. It doesn't have the feeling, but it has all those extra production value things. It is wholly inferior.

But the whole album is like that. There is extra percussion everywhere, organ on too many songs, and many over-thought production touches, including what definitely sounds like (GASP!) autotune. I mean I can hear some good songs in there, but they are covered up with a veneer which turns out not so good, but it all comes to the Nadir with the song Paul Newman vs. The Demons. Hey, I can see what they were trying to do there and I can appreciate the more electric and grunge-inspired sound, but it just doesn't work at all,  and ends up sounding amateurish and embarrassing. But, hey, it was slickly produced and packaged!

I was in Cape May last week and I went on a couple bird walks that the Cape May Bird Observatory runs, including one lead by Pete Dunne (hey, here is the exact one!). While we were walking and sorting through the sandpipers and other shore birds, Pete Dunne was explaining how to spot the White-rumped Sandpipers and also how to tell the Lesser Yellowlegs from the Greater Yellowlegs when he said something that really resonated with me: "put down the binoculars and watch the bird."

So why was The Carpenter a mediocre album? For all the equipment they used, for all the instruments and musicians involved, for all the recording time and production they had, they still missed something: they didn't put down the binoculars and watch the bird.

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