Album Review – The Lumineers “Cleopatra”

The Lumineers (from left): Neyla Pekarek, Jeremiah Fraites and Wesley Schultz.
The Lumineers (from left): Neyla Pekarek, Jeremiah Fraites and Wesley Schultz.

There was no way for The Lumineers to win with this record. They’d almost have to pull a J.D. Salinger to stay on the right side of history, and even then their legacy would be sullied. Why? Because popular culture has already judged them as a time piece—as part of a trend that started to die when even Saturday Night Live was doing parody sketches of roots bands dressed in suspenders with their little banjos and stringed instruments.

The Lumineers song “Ho Hey” caught a blazing moment in American society that will be as indelible as the winner of the World Series, but popular culture moved on at a rapid pace as it’s apt to do, and looked back unforgivably. The Lumineers and “Ho Hey” symbolized the apex of Millennial post-punk roots hipster culture. And they will be forever penalized for reasons completely out of their control, and totally autonomous from the quality of the music.

Mumford & Sons took the position of powering through the whole implosion of roots as popular music in the post 2012 world by adopting electric instruments in an attempt to pry themselves from a typecast future. The Lumineers took an alternative option: laying low. There was also a feisty legal battle with a previous band member that put their priorities elsewhere for a while.

The Lumineers never set out to become massive stars. The band was assembled by two long-time friends, lead guitarist and vocalist Wesley Schultz, and drummer/percussionist/piano player Jeremiah Fraites. Jeremiah’s brother Josh died in 2002, and distraught, the two close friends started writing songs together and composing music as a coping mechanism. Cellist Neyla Pekarek was eventually brought on, and The Lumineers were born.

the-lumineers-cleopatraThe band now employs a total of five people, with Stelth Ulvang and Byron Isaacs on bass, but you wouldn’t know The Lumineers were a five piece by listening to Cleopatra. You would think it was a singer/songwriter playing solo who maybe asked a couple of friends to help out here and there. The sparsity that is the signature of The Lumineers sound is arguably even more pronounced on this new record than the previous one. No, you won’t hear any shouting out “Ho Hey!” in the background. In fact you won’t even hear any substantial harmonies, and the harmonies that are here are so reserved, they’re more subtle texture than true accompaniment.

The Lumineers are about simple songs, and tasteful arrangement. Though the release of Cleopatra was met by virtually every track on the record charting on Billboard‘s Rock Songs chart, The Lumineers are Americana if any band ever was, and are worthy of a subgenre distinction usually reserved for a more thoughtful and attentive audience who enjoys music with an underlying roots sound. The success of The Lumineers proves the need for an Americana distinction on industry-wide charts as much as anything, and there’s a reason they’ve been announced as headliners of the Americana Music Conference in September.

Just the release of Cleopatra has to feel like a victory for The Lumineers. Outfits that start so humble, and then burn so bright tend to be predisposed to implosion. But if they can make it through still standing on their own two feet like other accidental superstars such as the Alabama Shakes, they tend to be better off for it.

Lucky for the Lumineers, they left a few songs in their back pocket through their overnight success, and then could utilize them on Cleopatra without the stress of expectation looming over their heads during the writing phase. “Sleep on the Floor” and “Gun Song” are arguably the two best tracks on the record, and both have been played and sung live for years, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t new to a plurality of the audience.

The dedication to space and minimalism in their music is incredible, and impossible to pull off unless ego is completely left on the sideline by all the players. If you’re listening to The Lumineers, you’re basically listening to an aggressive conservation of sound arranged around the words and melody for the listener to think the sounds are just an emotive extension of the story.

Melody is where the Lumineers’ songs spring from, and the songwriting is luring and insightful. Take the title track, which may seem theatrical and pretentious if you’re looking for reasons to hate this band. But it’s actually a song about realizing you may have lost out on the love of your life through bad timing or sloth, which is one of the most merciless incarnations of heartbreak.

Go ahead and write off The Lumineers as hipster rubbish, or dock them for waiting too long to release their follow up, or for having no idea how to engage an audience aside from eepish tones and catchy singalongs. But you’re missing out on a band that didn’t run away from the delicate and artful attention to noise that made them unlikely superstars, they doubled down on it because it’s who they are, and they’d rather die being themselves than worry about being defined by a moment in time four years ago.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)

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