Mumford & Sons Take Roots Music Mainstream w/ “Babel”

By all accounts, I should hate these dudes, and this album by proxy. Like many others, I’ve had it stuck in my head for a while now that Mumford & Sons is simply a bad British parody of the Avett Brothers. I mean the way they put out excessive energy on stage, the way their songs have an emotional air, even down to the way Marcus Mumford plays bass drum with his foot, exactly like Scott Avett does. I mean come on. Mumford even covers some Avett Brothers songs. It just all seems a little too obvious.

And then it was announced that Babel was the best-selling debut so far in 2012, selling 600,000 copies and outpacing folks like Justin Bieber. Really? Has the “roots” revolution reached such a point that it is the most popular, mainstream thing going in music these days? How am I supposed to be okay with that, and where is this leading?

I saw Mumford perform on Austin City Limits, and granted, since ACL these days is pandering to the short American attention span and sponsor requirements from Budwesier and Lexus, you only get 24 minutes to get a reading on a band, but the way Mumford member Ben Lovett wrenches behind the keyboard while holding down 3 simple notes like he’s enjoying the writhing, dirty pleasures of a truck stop glory hole is just too much to stomach. And no, the music didn’t make up for the transparent stage antics.

All good music reviewers try to leave any baggage behind when they pipe up a new album, but we’re human and can’t help walking in with some preconceived notions. That’s why I was blown away by how approachable I found Babel. It was not only approachable, it was pretty damn good. And the reason my reluctant turnaround became a wholesale change-of-heart was “passion.”

By taking away the visual element from this band live, however contrived it is or isn’t, I was able to see that Mumford & Son’s passion is authentic, and is woven into their songs that are refreshingly innovative and boldly anthemic. Mumford & Sons go for it at every moment. They hold back nothing. This is music that grabs you by the gullet and says, “Listen to me, and what I have to say!”

Yeah I agree, as some say, a lot of Mumford’s songs work the same, with that driving, bellowing beat. But they work nonetheless. And I’m glad that the songs are born of a British ear because that gives them an authentic tie to Mumford’s roots, not just roots music, and gives their music the strength of distinct dialect and perspective. I dare say they’ve even tamed their stage antics ever so slightly these days, finding the balance between conveying energy and being real.

Babel also reminds you of the primal power of the banjo. Yes, banjo is all over the place these days, in “indie” rock and in legions of silly eepish rootsy hipster bands. Even Eric Church and Taylor Swift are sporting banjos these days, but few know how to play them the right way like “Country” Winston Marshall of Mumford. No clawhammer, no playing it like a guitar or a hybrid spinoff Kermit the Frog’s strumming style that misappropriates the instrument simply for a “rootsy” tone or as a stage prop. No, Winston Marshall is fingerpicking all the way, and the primal, biting, cyclical crack of banjo notes creates a grounded element for Mumford & Sons’ otherwise ethereal, atmospheric compositions.

What I realized listening to Babel and cross-referencing it against Mumford’s wild success is that this is the music for right here, right now. The most popular of music is always a reduction or a rehash of what others mired in obscurity are doing much better, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t good. You go back and listen to The Cranberries for example, and in that era, they carried a voice and style that worked perfect for that time. Tastes shift and move, and time passes things by, and if Mumford & Sons want to stay where they are, they must move as well. But for now, they’re right where they need to be to take advantage of all the current trends in music, including a renewed thirst for the roots.

It is music with passion, music with emotion, and just enough “roots” to be relevant, yet not stuffy, hip, or outmoded. And their success doesn’t necessarily have to fly in the face of other “roots” bands, it means the ceiling has been raised for roots music’s potential. How many high school kids are now going to be hitting up Google with word strings like “Bands like Mumford & Sons” and pulling up Trampled by Turtles, .357 String Band, and The Calamity Cubes?

I will probably still hold some bit of a grudge against Mumford and bemoan the cheese corn elements of their live presentation. But I won’t blame the masses for getting behind Babel. It is a breath of fresh air in popular American music.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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