Riding piggyback with Mumford & Sons as purveyors of the new populist folk, The Lumineers made a strong case their first time out that indeed, like the Mumfords, they’d be a band to reckon with. Their song “Ho Hey” became an anthem, thanks to a catchy chorus that deemed it a popular sing-along, a radio favorite and part of the summer’s soundtrack. Little matter that the rest of the band’s repertoire never ascended to those heights.
Rebelling against the “sophomore slump” and the ad-friendly sound that gave them notoriety, The Lumineers’ sophomore album, “Cleopatra”, is astute and nostalgic. The trio’s three year hiatus complimented their songwriting, but in their quest to offer something with fewer sing-alongs and more authenticity, the end result feels tempered. Subscribing to the idea that immediate accessibility translates to a weaker artistic product is tired and pretentious.
Maybe the Lumineers got tired of hearing other bands replicate the big-footed stomp of "Ho Hey," an aesthetic that was impossible to avoid in the wake of their eponymous 2012 debut. So many bands adopted this thunderous folk that it no longer seemed to belong to the Lumineers; it appeared communal, perhaps existing to the earlier generations the Lumineers so clearly loved yet never quite replicated. Given this omnipresence, maybe it's not a surprise that the trio avoid any semblance of infectious rhythms on Cleopatra, their long-awaited second album, yet the sobriety of this 2016 affair is striking.
Listening to The Lumineers’ self-titled 2012 debut is like having a beer and a shot in a lively local bar at about 10:30 p.m. and swapping stories with some sloshed strangers. There’s bragging, joking, complaining, confessing, back-slapping, hand-clapping, and rowdy shouting. A few dull stretches, sure, but mostly The Lumineers is unassuming fun.
With their sophomore effort, Cleopatra, the Lumineers attempt to recapture the formula that made them famous: injecting the more traditional sound of Americana with bursts of rhythmic folk-rock gospel. Unfortunately, this retooled style was already bled for all its worth—which wasn't very much—on the band's 2012 self-titled debut, most notably the hit “Ho Hey. ” Here, frontman Wesley Schultz's limpid, reverb-laden lead vocals drive the album's opening track, “Sleep on the Floor,” making the faint distorted guitar and sparing background vocals seem like they exist solely to bolster his alto screams.
The Lumineers’ first album, an engaging assortment of echoes of Americana, old and new, was something of a joyously ramshackle affair. Some compositions a little, sketchy, others effectively snappy. Live, they excelled, and there is a sense on Cleopatra that the vigour and enthusiasm evident in supporting The Civil Wars has now been allied to more considered, more disciplined songwriting.
The Lumineers were never entirely the smiley, foot-stomping folkies they seemed to be on “Ho Hey,” their inescapable Top 10 hit in 2012. Four years later on their second album, “Cleopatra,” they put their serious intentions upfront. The mood is more existential, and the lyrics are often more oblique; some songs are named after Shakespearean women, like “Ophelia” and “Cleopatra.” Wesley Schultz’s guitar is almost always electric rather than acoustic, with the amplification opening hollow places rather than harnessing power; it’s joined in bare-bones arrangements by Jeremiah Fraites, on piano and simplistic drums, and Neyla Pekarek, on cello.
The Upshot: Quieter and striking a more somber tone than their Grammy-nominated first record, it sounds as if the band went out of its way to tone down the catchiness of their initial offering. Those expecting a bombastic folk pop foot-stomper from The Lumineers this time around, a “Ho Hey Pt. 2,” are bound to be disappointed with the Denver band’s sophomore effort.