|Mumford & Sons - barbery course hairs...|
Wednesday, 16 February 2011
I'd like to congratulate Mumford & Sons for their success in the Brit Awards. I'd like to slap them on the back and tell them "well done" for being the folk band which took on the best of the rest of British talent and triumphed.
I'd like to ... but I'm struggling. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Mumford Paradox!
The Brit Award for Best British Album of 2010 going to the Mumfords for Sigh No More has been hailed as a coup for British folk music, with the band beating competition from pop megalith Take That (the obvious favourites) and a clutch of flavour-of-the-year contenders. This should be good news for folk music in general, and some fans obviously feel it is, judging by comments I've read online. But I'm not so sure.
The rise and rise of Mumford & Sons has certainly been remarkable. In a little over three years they've gone from meeting and playing in London's acoustic club scene to making a debut album that's sold well over a million copies worldwide and performing with Bob Dylan at the Grammys - and I suspect that the Brit Award is really in recognition of that rapid, unlikely flowering rather than for the album itself.
The record industry can smell a burgeoning phenomenon, a sensation, and it has used its biggest sparkler - The Brits - to light the next stage of the booster rockets on Starship Mumford, aiming to blast it out of mere orbit and on its way to profits of intergalactic scale.
I certainly hope that's why they won, because the award makes little sense otherwise.
Let's leave to one side the fact that the "best British album of 2010" was released and charted in October 2009. Let's ignore the fact that musically it's repetitive and constrained, like one long song split up into a dozen near soundalike chunks. And let's not go on about the record's lack of ideas, or the buzz-saw drone of Marcus Mumford's lead vocals, or that the banjo player only knows one riff, or that the percussion lacks subtlety or range or that the production has been applied with a shovel (cue another Brit for the producer, Markus Davis).
Sigh No More is probably not a landmark album (we won't really know for 20 years), but it does have its moments. The Shakespeare-inspired title track is by far the best, and scattered here and there through the forest of musical undergrowth are clearings of promise, little quiet segments of delight that hint at songwriting sensitivity and give a suggestion of the light and shade that's otherwise missing. But then the banjo comes clattering in again, the acoustic guitar is thrashed and the Mumford machines goes crashing off down the hill, gathering pace, fury and assorted unnecessary instruments - trumpets, trombones ... a flugelhorn! - until it smashes itself to pieces in a wreck of shouted lyrics, honking brass and manic keyboards.
All of that is utterly unimportant. The Brit Awards are not about music; they are about marketing, and today the Mumfords are in all the papers. Again. Job done!
And what's so bad about that? That brings me back to The Mumford Paradox.
The Mumfords are British, they are a folk band and they are successful. That's got to be good for British folk music in general, right? Erm, not necessarily.
While the Mumfords are certainly British, and play music labeled as "folk", they are not a British folk band. They don't play British folk. Their music is far more influenced by American folk, by pop singer-songwriters, by country and bluegrass.
They aren't the first British band to take sounds from across the Atlantic, repackage them and sell them back to the States. The Beatles did it, The Rolling Stones did it, Led Zeppelin did it and so have many, many more. American blues and rock 'n' roll have inspired lots of wonderful British pop and rock down the decades. So why can't Mumford & Sons do the same thing for country and the midwest acoustic sound that's also produced American bands such as Midlake or Fleet Foxes?
Well, they can, but it has very little to do with British folk.
The Beatles, Stones and Zeppelin were inspired by blues but were never labeled as "blues bands" because they weren't blues bands. Blues is a simple style to categorise because it's easy to explain exactly what it is. Folk is a far tougher subject. Folk music means different things to different people in different places, and the term can be used so generally, be so all-inclusive, as to be an utterly useless. Indeed, blues itself is a kind of folk music, and shows that we need to sub-divide "folk" if the term is to serve any real purpose.
There are lots of different kinds of folk music and on Sigh No More the Mumfords play one variety - I'll call it American folk-rock. It's very different from British folk or British folk-rock.
And there's the paradox: while Mumford & Sons are a folk band, and they are British, they aren't a British folk band.
But does any of that matter? There are those who say that labels, pigeon-holes and genres are restrictive, unhelpful and uncreative. Musicians tend to hate labels because they don't want to tailor their music to fit any box they've been stuffed into, and that's understandable - but audiences do like labels because they want to be able to find more of the artists that appeal to them.
Therefore, labeling Mumford & Sons as a British folk band is not only inaccurate it's unhelpful, not only to their fans hoping to find more of the same but also to genuine makers of British folk music.
Mumford fans looking to find a rich seam of Mumfordesque music within British folk are instead going to be presented with a far headier brew. If they can take it they are in for a treat, but I fear that many will stagger away in shock and - possibly - anger and resentment.
Some may get to "acquire the taste", as some rock fans did when in previous generations bands such as Jethro Tull introduced them to folk, or when the original followers of Fairport Convention saw the band make a remarkable transformation from jingle-jangle imitators of US artists such as The Byrds and
Dylan into something that dug deep down into their native, British traditions and reinvigorated the British folk music scene.
But that was 40 years ago. Music fans then had ears that were accustomed to hearing a far wider range of sounds than are the lugholes pinned to the teens of today, who are trapped in the programmed, confined, ghettoised world of pop radio where anything that's more than six months old is a "golden oldie". How would today's typical Mumford fan react if suddenly confronted by Coupe, Boyes & Simpson, June Tabor or Dick Gaughan? Nurse, the screens!
That's not to say that there's no more "Mumford" style music to be found in Britain. They are not alone in reinterpreting the folk sound of America, with the likes of The Travelling Band and ahab doing a similar job and, in my opinion, with more interesting results.
We must beware of being a musical snob and I'm not knocking this style of music. In fact, I like the best of it - but much more in the way that I also like the best of Scissor Sisters and Take That than in the way I love The Demon Barbers or Lau.
I can recognise good songwriting and performance in any genre. I can enjoy the skill that goes into making a quality pop record. I can get a buzz from a beat or a groove. But it doesn't touch me deep in my core; it doesn't connect with something right inside me the way that, say, Show Of Hands does.
So, where does that leave us? If things go badly, the Mumfords will become more transatlantic, more bland and more disconnected. But if things take a different turn, there could be real cause for celebration.
If the Mumfords can "do a Fairport" and reach out to their own roots, rather than picking out the processed echoes of a cousin culture, that will be a marvellous thing to see and hear. If they can immerse themselves in British folk's heritage and create something new from what they find then they'll have achieved something truly worthy of an award.
Their greatest achievement so far is to generate a remarkable amount of publicity and a pop following. What they do gets noticed. They've laid a foundation, and hopefully they'll build on that in interesting and bold ways, creating something that will last a lifetime.
I do congratulate them on building that solid foundation, but I'm not taken in by them winning just another daft award in yet another ludicrous event, and they shouldn't be taken in by it, either. At least they were unexpected winners, the outsiders beating the industry giants. But best album of 2010? Give me a break!
Meanwhile, we continue to welcome anyone who does find folk, via the Mumford route or otherwise. Welcome to all who want (or thinks they want) to listen to British folk music. That's why FolkCast exists - to help anyone anywhere experience some truly magical sounds.
Turn on, dig in, folk out! I hope it blows your mind.