Gotta See It To Relish It
In a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the American actor whose role as the young policeman, John Blake, in The Dark Knight Rises I liked, the musical guests were Mumford & Sons, an English indie folk band. They played two songs live—I Will Wait and Below My Feet—both from their recently released new album, Babel. Both the performances were nice. And I thought to myself that Mumford & Sons were probably better heard live than on albums. I’ve had a copy of Sigh No More, their debut album, for a couple of years but I must admit that although I liked listening to it the first couple of times, it soon got a bit clichéd, repetitive and whiney.
Live, they sounded better. It helps that Mumford & Sons (who are a quartet with just one Mumford, by the way, Marcus, who sings and plays guitar and drums, and has no sons in the band) are a very well-turned-out lot. GQ put them on its list of Best Dressed Men at the Grammys and it is true that the four—Marcus, Winston Marshall (vocals, banjo and dobro), Ben Lovett (vocals, keyboard) and Ted Dwane (vocals, bass)—dress well: tailored vests, suspenders, ties, and other accoutrements that are stylish but yet a bit hipsterishly rumpled. It also helps that all four are good looking young men too.
Watch both the videos of the two songs they performed on SNL as well as on a sketch during the show, where they played as a band (a spoof on The Beatles) called Hey Dude and covered You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and you will see the passion and the crowd-pleasing aspect of Mumford & Sons who come across as a band of decent young blokes channelling country, folk and bluegrass quite well.
Triggered by the SNL appearances, I turned again to their albums. I first heard Babel, the new one, followed by a re-hearing of Sigh No More, the first one. Mumford & Sons have been called English folk revivalists. The problem is they are a tad too nostalgic for me. Their songs, the lyrics especially, can sometimes seem very over-wrought and old-fashioned. Consider a couple of verses from The Cave: It’s empty in the valley of your heart/The sun, it rises slowly as you walk./ Away from all the fears/And all the faults you’ve left behind./ The harvest left no food for you to eat/You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see/ But I have seen the same/ I know the shame in your defeat. Or, from another song, Roll Away Your Stone: Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine/ Together we can see what we will find/ Don’t leave me alone at this time/ For I am afraid of what I will discover inside/ Cause you told me that I would find a hole/ Within the fragile substance of my soul/ And I have filled this void with things unreal/ And all the while my character it steals. Heavy stuff and kind of over-written for a folk song. At least, that’s what I thought.
Like many bands with a cultish following, Mumford & Sons have some very loyal fans who simply love them even as some others don’t have too many good things to say about them. Their first album, Sigh No More, was given a paltry 2.1 out of a possible maximum of 10 by Pitchfork, an influential music blog and online magazine, but other critics rated it high. Such polarisation is common for bands that, in today’s long-tail world of music—where niche audiences lap up albums or music by bands that don’t have to go mainstream or mass to be successful. While critics such as Pitchfork are free to speak their minds about albums that they like or they don’t, I wouldn’t say Mumford & Sons makes music that is as bad as some make it out to be. All said, they have a nice old-fashioned charm. Folk revivalists they may be but their folkie-ness is never wimpish. Both Sigh No More and Babel are similar albums with the same blue-grassy, folk feel but they ooze passion and energy, attributes not always associated with folk music. And, as I said, they are way better when heard live.
I have two albums, both new-ish, on my playlist right now. The first is British band, The xx’s new album, Coexist. I like The xx’s brand of moody rock, a bit dark and minimalist. I enjoyed their eponymously titled first album, several of whose tracks got re-mixed and sampled by other musicians and the new one—after a first listen—promises to be as good if not better. The second album on my list this week is the recently released Until The Quiet Comes from Flying Lotus whose birth name is Steven Ellison and who is the great-nephew of the late Alice Coltrane. Flying Lotus makes experimental electronic music (not jazz) and previews of his new album have got rave reviews. It came out on October 2 and I got a digital copy within days after that, courtesy my teenaged daughter whom I’ve refrained from asking where she got it from.