Plug the search term "Avett Brothers" into YouTube, and a ton of live footage of the North Carolina string trio comes up: A sweet yet rough stab at "Kind of in Love" that quickly blossoms into an audience sing-along; a rollicking run through "Denouncing November Blue." But if you're trawling for samples from their as-yet-untitled fourth studio album... well, don't expect much. The goods have been kept under wraps while the band—harmonizing brothers Scott and Seth Avett, plus upright bassist Bob Crawford—refine their latest batch of songs.
According to Scott, in concert the group has intentionally refrained from playing the majority of the songs slated for the follow-up to their 2006 smash Four Thieves Gone. "I'm okay with the fact that people record things live and that they get around quickly," he says. But nowadays, the band prefers to wait until recording a new tune before they add it to the set. "Because otherwise, if anybody is at your show, that song will be on YouTube next week."
Still, fans who turn up to see the guys headline the Tractor on Friday, January 19, can look forward to hearing other fresh selections, culled from their recent EP The Gleam in the repertoire. But folks who have pigeonholed the Avetts because of their fiery live shows and Ramones-meets–Bill Monroe reputation may be startled by this six-song detour. Featuring shadowy selections like "Sanguine," The Gleam is a much quieter affair, cut by just Scott and Seth, with minimal instrumentation; a bit of banjo, a little harmonica, but primarily low-key vocals and acoustic guitar.
Scott claims the hushed character of The Gleam isn't really indicative of the next album's sound, but their decision to do something markedly different is. For the first time since the siblings made the leap from punk to bluegrass, back in 2000, the record they're just wrapping up was made in a relatively big studio. And they took advantage of the amenities.
"We had access to a lot of instruments. If we wanted to put a Hammond B3 organ or a xylophone on a track, we would fish one out and learn how to play it well enough to do it. That's something I've always wanted to do, and heard in the songs, but we were limited. This time, we were kind of wide open on it. And that immediately comes through, just as far as how many layers we could put in each of the songs."
The group also drew on the lessons it learned from cutting four demos with legendary producer Joel Dorn (Roberta Flack, the Allman Brothers Band) back in early 2006. "He taught us a lot, and we approached this new recording with that knowledge. Joel really made us work. Sometimes, if you want to get things just right, you have to do 15 takes." So you didn't get to sample all the songs as works-in-progress on the web. Big deal. Sometimes a little spit and polish—and patience—yields greater rewards.