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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Fifth on the Floor
October 16, 2012 @ 9:59 am
I’ve been a fan of Mumford & Sons for a couple of years now. Any music class teaching a lesson on dynamics should give the class a listen to Mumford’s first record.
Comparing them to the Avetts is as easy and perhaps unfair as comparing the Avetts to Old Crow. Avetts focus a lot more on fun, Mumfords (for better or worse) focus a lot more on vocal intensity.
But, popular or no, bestselling or no, I’m a fan. Unleash the hounds 😉
October 16, 2012 @ 10:06 am
I agree with your opinion about the band. I have not heard the new album yet, but I have conflicted feelings about Mumford and Sons. I’m glad to see that a roots oriented band that focuses on songwriting is becoming popular, but I feel that some of there stuff is still a little over processed, and a group like Trampled By Turtles is much better. Hopefully, like you said, this encourages people to find some of the great underground roots acts out there.
October 16, 2012 @ 10:21 am
I personally really don’t mind Mumford & Sons. I don’t own there albums and I probably won’t buy this one but its a breath of fresh air when listening to the radio in a friends car. I’m not sure how Mumford & Sons got as popular as they did but many of the people I know who listen to them scoff at me when I play things like Trampled by Turtles, and the Avett Brothers. Somehow they got popular and they’re just a fad that will eventually just fall out of fashion.
Just my 2 cents on them.
October 16, 2012 @ 12:03 pm
….many of the people I know who listen to them scoff at me when I play things like Trampled by Turtles, and the Avett Brothers.”
Those people you know are hipsters. Wait a couple of months, they will scoff at Mumford too.
October 16, 2012 @ 1:30 pm
not hipsters, mostly my gf’s friends that usually listen to pop and mainstream country stuff. For some reason they really like Mumford but they think anything else with a banjo is awful.
October 16, 2012 @ 10:56 am
I’ve been a fan since the first album. I can see where some people are coming from with their dislike of the band, but I love them.
On a side note, I take issue with you saying clawhammer banjo isn’t the “right” way to play banjo, as someone who plays that style. It is the original way that banjo was played (along with one- and two-finger style, finger or thumb lead, etc.), long before Scruggs started playing his style of fingerpicking. And I also have no problem with playing it like a guitar, like Joey from the Cubes. It’s an instrument that has a lot to offer, and is very versatile. There really is no “right” way to play it, just what is right for a particular song.
October 16, 2012 @ 12:42 pm
I’m not saying that it’s not a ‘right” way to play banjo whatsoever, though going back and reading I can understand how someone would infer that. I was simply driving the point home that the banjo in most of Mumford’s songs is straightforward fingerpicking, which is getting more rare, especially when banjo is used in popular/mainstream music.
October 17, 2012 @ 5:33 am
October 16, 2012 @ 1:35 pm
My hipster friend introduced me to their debut album and something about their music sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me. So I’m resisting listening to their latest album. I’m not a fan but I’m happy they’re having the success they’re having because they are definitely talented and more talented than other artists topping the charts these days and it’ll be interesting to see what effect they’ll have within the industry if any at all.
October 16, 2012 @ 2:15 pm
I know this isn’t a review of the new Avett’s album, but I wanted to mention how disapointing their most recent release was. They’ve gone in a different direction from their more rootsy sounding roots. Mumford is catching up to the Avetts by virtue of the Avetts faltering.
October 16, 2012 @ 3:46 pm
you should try listening to that G.Love blues album they produced…freaking abomination.
October 16, 2012 @ 2:30 pm
a commenter on another website called them the coldplay of roots music which pretty much sums it up for me. i dont really hate them and if they come up on the radio i wouldnt change the channel but not something i ever would go out of my way to listen to.
October 16, 2012 @ 3:52 pm
I thought the first album was dope…still need to get the new one though. been reading alot of positive reviews so far,looking forward to hearing it.
October 16, 2012 @ 3:54 pm
You should check out the guy they used to open for, Johnny Flynn. He’s everything people like about Mumford & Sons, but with a larger sonic palette and better songwriting chops. I found his first album, A Larum, in a bargin bin and didn’t stop listening to it for three weeks. Really good stuff.
Bigfoot is Real (seriously)
October 17, 2012 @ 8:36 am
Hey I gotta say that the comment by Seth is why I keep coming back to SCM. I just checked out some samples on Amazon and Seth nailed it right on the head about Johnny Flynn. Thanx for the dope tip yo! A Larum is on order.
October 16, 2012 @ 4:00 pm
I consider myself a casual fan of Mumford. I mean, I enjoy their music, but I don’t own any of their albums and probably never will. I am glad they’re popular, like you said, they could expose more people to this kind of music.
October 16, 2012 @ 4:48 pm
I heard Little Lion Man on the alt rock station in atlanta my senior year of high school. Since then ive been a huge mumford and sons fan. Its honestly because of them that ive gotten into all the alt country and americana i have.
October 16, 2012 @ 7:58 pm
I don’t care for them much and I didn’t know they were popular. I can’t see myself drinking beer to this crap.
October 17, 2012 @ 6:10 am
Nope, not the type of music to drink beer to, but these bloody English gents would probably prefer their listeners sip tea….
October 17, 2012 @ 6:03 am
20 years from now, I think we’ll look back on Mumford and Sons, as well as some of the stuff that the Avett Brothers, etc. put out and say “wow, that music was just kind of boring.”
I like a lot of the Avett Brothers music, but it can be kinda bland sometimes…
October 17, 2012 @ 1:05 pm
This is the same shit those of us who were in college in the early 2000’s referred to as “Dave Matthews”. You know what, it still sucks….
October 18, 2012 @ 11:19 am
Good point. It does kind of sound like an equally shitty version of Dave Matthews, or possibly Coldplay with a banjo.
October 17, 2012 @ 1:14 pm
Mumford & Sons played the same song over and over again on their first album, and somehow they hit the jackpot. I remember the pleasant surprise of hearing their music for the first time on a radio-station that is usually dominated by U2, Coldplay, a lot of Dutch mediocrity andwhatever is hot. Where Taylor Swift is still a country-singer. Mumford was, and still is a breath of fresh air when I hear it, but I was listening to the Avetts before I heard Mumford, and whatever you may think of the Avetts, they got a lot more variety in their songs.
Besides that, I’m old enough to have experienced The Pogues in their prime, 25 years ago with brilliant albums like Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, or If I Should Fall From Grace With God. Mumford will never be as important for European folkmusic as The Pogues. Period.
Still, I like this music, I like it’s success, and maybe it helps to introduce my sister’s daughter to some of the music I like: it kinda sounds like Mumford & Sons…… who knows. They’ll be around for awhile, but how long before we, the audience, will get really bored by the Mumford-mono-sound. I heard a story that they had recorded a cd that sounded very different than the first one, in the same period that they became really successfull, decided that it might not be a good idea to change at the top, went back to the studio with Babel as result. This is a commercial product, and I think 1 3/4 guns up is a bit overrated for the long run.
October 17, 2012 @ 1:50 pm
I’m hearing more “babble” than Babel.
October 17, 2012 @ 1:58 pm
I am thoroughly not impressed. This is the shit that is wrong with radio in my opinion. These guys can make millions internationally on any mainstream station, yet true roots musicians (like Wayne Hancock, Jayke Orvis, Scott H. Biram, Tom V., the list goes on indefinitely) can barely fill a dive bar on the road. Puke, barf, vomit…makes me sick.
October 17, 2012 @ 4:23 pm
Thanks for this – haven’t been here in a while. I agree with earlier posters, this ain’t “beer drinking” music. But I’ve found I can’t keep my fingers or toes still listening to “Babel” or The Dirty River Boys’ new one “The Science of Flight”. Glad to see great music get both critical acclaim and popular support. Let’s hope others find other deserving artists because they got hooked on Mumford.
October 18, 2012 @ 8:52 am
I can’t remember who it was, but some reviewer called Mumford and Sons “Creed with a banjo”. That is a remarkably true assessment – it is roots music, but it is done in an arena-friendly manner and in a very serious tone. I don’t have much of an opinion on Mumford, but I’d certainly prefer a rock-based act become popular instead of another generic dance/pop artist.
October 19, 2012 @ 12:31 am
You know how you can use a song for an alarm on your iPhone? I think I just found the tune for Snooze…
When’s that new Stugill Simpson coming out dammit?!?!
October 19, 2012 @ 7:27 am
Im from the UK and cant stand Mumford. They got big off of ridiculous amounts of airplay on British radio as these indie hipster Djs had never heard anything like it before. I like the term Coldplay with banjos its very apt for them. I had never heard the Avett Brothers before visiting this site and couldnt believe that Mumford could get away with not just a copy but such an obvious and lousy copy.
January 9, 2013 @ 1:19 pm
I really tried to give these guys a chance and I revisited them after I saw them on a few “best of” lists for 2012. I just never took to them and I figured out why yesterday. These guys are the Live (the band) of the pop acoustic world. Remember Live? They start out their songs really slow and quiet and serious, then rock the hell out of the chorus and turn up the guitars. Mumford and Sons use dynamics, but they do it to a point where it’s a gimmick to me.
February 12, 2013 @ 3:46 pm
So 3 finger is right and clawhammer is wrong? Tell me more about these hipsters…