As an unofficial member of the national music writing community, it seems that every single one of my peers hates Mumford & Sons. They hate their outfits. They hate the clapping. They hate the singing along. They hate how “polite” the music seems. They hate their namby-pamby backgrounds as British prep school kids. They hate the way they say “farst” instead of “fast” or “carn’t” instead of “can’t”. They even hate their completely awesome music video fake-out with Ed Helms, Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Will Forte. They HATE Mumford & Sons’ success and sincerity–those two things should never go together in the minds of many writers and hipsters today. And finally they hate Mumford & Sons for not being true “roots” music, for being a bland pastiche of American folk music presumably made by clueless appropriators. Even though Mumford & Sons are on hiatus at the moment, I’m sure the hate will start up again when they get back.
Well you know what? I love Mumford & Sons. AND I bought Mumford & Sons’ last album, Babel. Which is a big thing for a cheap-as-fuck music writer to do. AND I bought it at Starbucks. Because A) Starbucks is awesome and they have ALWAYS had incredibly good taste in music (not a joke folks, the Hear Music compilations from years ago at Starbucks were really good and inspired me in a number of roots music genres). And B) Fuck it, I love Mumford & Sons.
For now, here are two reasons why you should like Mumford & Sons too:
This is proof positive, the smoking gun, that Mumford & Sons know their shit. Recorded on the road by the fine folks at Daytrotter, the Mumfords delight in their visits here to the Americana back catalogue, handpicking covers of some of their favorite songs and sharing the music with friends like Abigail Washburn and Dawes. They cover Bruce Springsteen (“Atlantic City”) and Bob Dylan (the bootleg song “I Was Young When I Left Home”), but also Guy Clark (“The Partner Nobody Chose”), and in a telling move, the great songwriter Roger Miller, too often underappreciated. They even go so far as to cover Roger Miller’s song “Not in Nottingham” from the Disney animated movie Robin Hood. And they cover some standards of old mountain music: “Little Birdie” and “Angel Band.” There’s a real sense of humor here, but also a love for the music that came before. It’s a love that some people don’t hear in their commercial albums, but that I think it inescapable on this album.
2) Marcus Mumford’s version of “Fare Thee Well” from the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack.
I just got my hands on the soundtrack to the new Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis which will focus on the New York folk revival scene in the 60s. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the soundtrack features new star Oscar Isaac, old star Justin Timberlake, and a bunch of luminaries like The Punch Brothers. What’s uncanny is how these artists are trying to imitate the music of a generation they don’t belong to, and in the end it reminds me how dated folk revival singing can seem. The earnestness! The leaden humor! The self-righteousness! The stilted rhythms of suburbanites playing rural music! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve great love of folk revival music, but the coffeeshop singing of that era can be a bit bland at times for folks these days. Here though, Marcus Mumford and Oscar Isaac transform the old folk revival ballad “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”. It’s based loosely on Dave Van Ronk’s version, since after all he is the inspiration behind the film, and Mumford/Isaac manage to translate the underlying angst in Van Ronk’s singing perfectly. This isn’t a stiff recreation, but rather a balm for the soul. The exact kind of transformative folk music that Van Ronk was known for. Without imitating or mimicking anything, they’ve managed to nail the beauty of the folk revival while still sounding fresh and new. It’s a great moment.
Look I get it. I get that Mumford & Sons isn’t the “old, weird America” we’re always looking for in modern recreations of roots music. This isn’t 16 Horsepower, and don’t get on about how this isn’t Dock Boggs or Charlie Poole. I prefer Gaither Carlton, Luther Strong, and Burnett & Rutherford if we’re talking about old-ass stringband 78rpm artists. I get that we’re all looking for the creepy weirdo sounds of yesteryear to get refiltered through modern voices, and I get that Mumford & Sons are NOT doing that. That’s not the point. They’re making beautiful pop music with acoustic instruments, deeply informed by American roots music. Their songs aren’t made for critical appraisal, they’re not made for ironic hipsters, and they’re not made to be over-intellectualized. They’re made to be sung along with, enjoyed with friends, played around campfires, and shouted in chorus at a concert. And after all, isn’t that what folk music is all about?