Release Date: Sep 25, 2012
Record label: Glass Note
Genre(s): Folk, Alternative/Indie Rock, Folk-Pop
It's hard to imagine a more preposterous road to platinum success than the one Mumford & Sons traveled. Sigh No More, the 2010 debut by Marcus Mumford and his London crew, is a set of rousing tunes clad in choirboy harmonies, clawhammer banjo and Salvation Army brass that exploded amid a sea of AutoTuned cyber-pop. Soon, the band was backing Dylan on the Grammys, recording Kinks classics with Ray Davies and uncannily recalling the days when string bands like the Carter Family and the Louvin Brothers were radio gold.
Millions watched Mumford & Sons join Bob Dylan at the 2011 Grammys to play ”Maggie’s Farm,” which is somewhat ironic. Wasn’t that song supposed to be Dylan’s screed against the folk scene? Now the Sons are leading a folk revival that includes the Lumineers, Milo Greene, and Of Monsters and Men — a whole new generation of bands who dress like There Will Be Blood extras and treat folk-rock with such devotion you’d think it was an old-time religion. And for Marcus Mumford, maybe it is.
In an era where buzz bands too often fall out of fashion without much notice, the fabled “sophomore slump” is even more of an issue. After a band releases a stellar debut album to widespread critical and commercial acclaim, the big question on everyone’s lips is, “What’s next?” Artists must ask themselves the same question and ultimately decide the best way to proceed in what can easily be a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t type of situation. With their second record, Mumford & Sons adhered to the idea that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
There are some guitar sounds so indelibly stuck into our collective pop-consciousness that even those who can’t tell a minor from a major chord can identify the band or player from just a few riffs –a dreamy John Lennon lick, the cosmic climb of Joe Perry, Slash’s slash, Nirvana’s fuzzy-barre rips, the post-punk fury of Sonic Youth. Now, the chugging, kinetic strum of Mumford & Sons is slowly creeping onto this revered list – not born out of extreme skill or virtuosity but by sheer branding, note for note. And it’s how the band’s second album, Babel, opens on the title track: with that same very strum, born somewhere between English mountain folk and an old time Appalachia.
Though the band hails from London, Mumford & Sons sold more than two million copies of its last album, 2009’s Sigh No More, on the strength of what presented a lot like a summative history of Americana—gospel-esque vocal passion, roots-y acoustic guitar and banjo instrumentation, mild bluegrass sensibility, and even a tour by train that brought to mind the infamous 1970 Festival Express with Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, and The Band. .
Review Summary: Mumford & Sons deliver Sigh No More Pt. III was fully prepared to hate this. If you had any idea the number of semi-clever headlines I had queued for this – my favorites being “they really fucked it up this time” and “sigh some more” – then you’d appreciate that I actually feel a small sense of remorse for enjoying Babel to the extent that I do.
Mumford & Sons’ debut album, Sigh No More, sold millions of copies based on the strength of its two singles, “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave”. All credit to the band and Glassnote Records, because it would have been difficult to find two better songs from Sigh No More to spring on an unsuspecting public. “Little Lion Man”, with its urgent, minor key guitar and banjo interplay and its bracing chorus (“I really fucked it up this time”), managed to sound organic and folky while still rocking surprisingly hard for an acoustic group.
Two-and-a-half million copies of debut ‘Sigh No More’ shifted in the States alone. A bigger festival draw than a reformed Smiths with Rolf Harris on didgeridoo. Their very own continent-hopping Gentlemen Of The Road grand tour. Doing more for barn dances than any band since Rednex. Mumford ….
English folk revivalists Mumford & Sons' 2009 debut, Sigh No More, boarded the slowest train it could find on its journey from regional gem to pleasantly surprising, international success story. After simmering and stewing throughout the U.K. and Europe, the band landed boots first at the Staples Center for a rousing performance at the 2011 Grammy Awards that found the smartly dressed quartet tearing through "The Cave," and then backing, along with the equally snappy Avett Brothers, Bob Dylan on a generation-spanning rendition of "Maggie's Farm" that provided one of the better Grammy moments of the last decade or so.
There's a phrase, midway through Mumford & Sons' second album, that neatly encapsulates their existence. "Watch the world tear us apart," Marcus Mumford sing-speaks in his tarry voice, "a stoic mind and a bleeding heart." They are the epitome of a Marmite band: vilified for their privileged background and narrow vision of folk music; celebrated for their spit'n'sawdust energy and biblical framing of love. Babel will only entrench these positions: essentially it's a honing of their 2009 debut, Sigh No More, but with more of the ferocity you encounter in their live show.
You’re more likely to hear banjos and dobros on country radio than on alternative stations, but Mumford & Sons, along with likeminded acts such as the Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, and the Felice Brothers, have used their string instruments to lead a folk-music revival in modern rock. With their sophomore album, Babel, Mumford & Sons look to keep that roots-rock revivalism going by sticking to the same formula as their double-platinum, Grammy-endorsed debut, Sigh No More. While the quartet may be perfectly competent musicians, though, their fundamental conservatism plays against them on Babel, making for an album that’s entirely too familiar and safe.
The story of the Tower of Babel is one of those Biblical tales that’s got everything. Like much of Genesis, it has that incredibly ancient, mythological tone. It delivers a simplistic moral: don’t overstep your bounds, don’t try to get too close to the divine. It’s a story of confusion, and how the inability to communicate a direct message can impair any endeavor.
The music of Mumford & Sons is like the music of That Guy Who Plays Acoustic Guitar At The Party. He picks up the guitar and a half-circle of people forms around him. He croons sensitive tunes and everyone swoons. People may or may not decide to use improvised percussion instruments to accompany him.
It's doubtful many people predicted the breakout success of Mumford & Sons' 2009 debut, Sigh No More. That probably includes Marcus Mumford himself. In the wake of the band's ascension to arena-rockers, Dylan-backers and Grammy nominees, the earnest bandleader has been forced to eat his words that the next album would abandon the plaintive bluegrass-folk-rock that shot them to prominence.
Which came first, the fashion for urban 20-year-olds to wear brogues and waistcoats or the success of rustic British pop? It's hard to tell, since a general brownness has been ubiquitous for the past half-decade in a period when British fashion and music have been cross-pollinating to the gain of both. That might help explain why Mumford & Sons have become one of the beleaguered music industry's good news stories. Certainly, few would have predicted back in 2006 that Mumford banjo player Winston Marshall's raggle-taggle folk night – Bosun's Locker – would give rise to a clutch of well-regarded artists like Johnny Flynn, Laura Marling and Noah and the Whale.
Three years ago, Mumford & Sons was thrust into the spotlight when their debut album, Sigh No More, began to sell millions of copies. If the concept of a multi-million selling album wasn’t odd enough, interest was furthered even more-so by the band’s revivalist Americana sound. While I didn’t particularly care much for their debut album, I decided to give Babel a chance in hopes that the band might surprise me.
It’s no coincidence that Mumford & Sons’ breakout song was also one of the band’s most muscular. “Little Lion Man,” with its commanding chorus (“But it was not your fault but mine / And it was your heart on the line / I really [expletive] it up this time / Didn’t I, my dear?”), synthesized the English folk-rockers’ appeal: Poignancy goes down well with a shot of bombast. That song came from Mumford & Sons’ 2009 debut, “Sigh No More,” whose follow-up is that album on steroids.