Posts Tagged ‘Mumford & Sons’

The Ghost of Tom Joad

September 8, 2013

Here’s a nice little treat: Mumford & Sons with Elvis Costello singing a medley of Springsteen and Guthrie:

A couple of quick observations: first, that Springsteen song is one terrific song; second, it has been a long time since I’ve seen Elvis Costello, and it is a little shocking to see him so old; third, it is odd that in this song Costello doesn’t sound like Costello and Mumford doesn’t sound like Mumford; fourth, why do they schedule these video shoots on such short notice? Nobody has time to shave.

Favourites of 2012: Popular music

December 19, 2012

Truth be told, I heard relatively little popular music this year. I therefore cannot claim that my selections are anything like a “best of the year”. But these are the records that occupied my attention more than any others.

(Note: Several of the videos in this post are prefaced by short advertisements. I apologize for this. If I could get around them, I would.)

CohenOldIdeasOld Ideas
Leonard Cohen

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tune
(“Going Home”)

I do not know if we shall have another record from Leonard Cohen, who is now nearly 80 years old, but if it should happen that we do not then Old Ideas will stand as a fitting leave-taking. The songs seem to come to us from one perched at the boundary between life and death, looking first at one, then at the other, calmly but not complacently, and trying to say something fitting to the occasion.

Given the way these songs circle ceaselessly around loss and death, it is perhaps surprising to find them also enlivened by sly humour, stately grace, and a steady hope. For Cohen, it seems, the prospect of death provokes serious reflection but not despair, and he approaches us, his audience, not as one sliding into oblivion but as a prophet — albeit a reluctant one (which is the only true kind) — who can speak with confidence because he speaks the truth.

To say that he “speaks” is closer to the truth than you might expect, for some of the songs are indeed close to being simple readings of his poetry rather than songs sung. The music, which is never of very great interest on its own merits, sometimes settles into the merest background accompaniment. That is fine with me. And though I will not claim that Old Ideas is an unqualified success — the first half is notably stronger than the second, and that ought not to be true of a bona fide masterpiece — it is a record that I believe ranks with Leonard Cohen’s best, and that is no small matter. It is my favourite record of the year. [Music Note]

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart.
Come, healing of the reason.
Come, healing of the heart.
(“Come Healing”)

***

mumford-and-sons-album-babelBabel
Mumford & Sons

When Marcus Mumford first came to my attention a few years ago, following the release of his band’s debut record, I was surprised that he was possible. His songs, dressed up in attractive if fairly nondescript roots music, revealed a mind and heart of rare qualities. Here was a young man, still in his early 20s, writing songs about purity of heart, about grace, and about his desire to live in the truth. It was as though he had somehow gone around the moral and spiritual squalor of contemporary life by another route, emerging onto the stage holding a candle in the darkness, ready to sing about hope and a happy ending.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the songs struck a chord with young audiences, and in the several years since that first record became a surprise hit, Mumford & Sons have been on a wild ride, thrust into the limelight, playing to sold out stadiums, and lionized by taste-makers. They have been rubbing elbows with people who matter. Mumford himself went and married an edgy Hollywood actress. My great fear in advance of hearing Babel was that this success, and this new social status, and the scrutiny that goes with them, would have quenched that good and courageous spirit that had attracted me in the beginning.

These worries were not entirely in vain. If I am interpreting the record well, it is fairly clear that the success of Sigh No More was destabilizing in much the way I had feared. “I’m a cad, but I’m not a fraud,” he sings in “Whispers in the Dark”, “I set out to serve the Lord.” So the memory is there, but this new record is notably darker than the last, the songs populated by ghosts and wanderers making their way through trackless wastes, out of balance, lost and labouring under a confusion of tongues. Hope is not absent, but the traveller’s song is no longer a confident “I will hold on hope”, but a plaintive “Give me hope”.

The good news is that Mumford himself seems aware that something precious is under threat, and he is not content. The record’s lead single, “I Will Wait”, shows us a man broken-down and exhausted by “days of dust” who falls in a heap with this prayer on his lips: “Tame my flesh, and fix my eyes”, and who asks for something that only seems contradictory: “a tethered mind freed from the lies”. At several points on the record we encounter a similar wish, for an anchor, a secure foothold in a storm. In “Hopeless Wanderer” the wayward pilgrim is encouraged by these words: “Don’t hold a glass over the flame / Don’t let your heart grow cold / I will call you by name / I will share your road”. And there is reason to hope that this encouragement has been taken to heart, and that all shall yet be well. “Raise my hands,” they sing, “Paint my spirit gold, and bow my head. Keep my heart slow.” Keep my heart slow. It is the prayer of a man who has not lost sight of the most important things.

Musically, Babel ploughs much the same field as did Sigh No More; call it folk-rock, or call it pop music in acoustic garb. I’ll not quarrel. There are, in my judgement, no songs on Babel as immediately memorable as “The Cave” or “Little Lion Man” from their first record, but, taking the record as a whole, the quality of the songwriting has in general improved; fewer peaks, but also fewer valleys.

At the same time, some apparent limitations to their range are becoming apparent. The music has a tendency to bounce between two poles: adagio and piano, on one hand, and allegro and forte, on the other, with not much in between. It becomes predictable, and I’d like to hear something more supple from them on subsequent records. It also feels increasingly clear that the name of the group is all too apt: Marcus Mumford is the man among boys, and without him there would be little reason to pay attention. (Admittedly, I say this without any knowledge of how their songwriting happens; I give my impressions as a listener.) The musicianship, too, is not all that it might be; I cannot play the piano, but I expect that in two or three days I could learn to play the keyboard bits on these songs. Taken together, these considerations point to a lack of depth, and I am not altogether sure that his Sons are going to help Mumford reach his full potential. Nonetheless, for a sophomore record — often a major hurdle for any band that meets with great success their first time out — Babel is promising, and I’ll keep listening.

Here is a live performance of “Ghosts that we Knew”:

***

taylor-swift-red-album-1350575305Red
Taylor Swift

This is getting complicated. Ms. Swift’s previous record was — whatever the musical cognoscenti may say — some kind of middle-brow masterpiece that bounced from strength to tweeny-bopper strength, but which continued her gradual migration away from her country sweetheart roots. Not that she ceased to be a sweetheart, of course, but the music was definitely shedding whatever perfunctory twang and drawl it once had. For some of us this was an unhappy trend, though it was hard to be too anxious when sated on such irresistible confections. Then last year she appeared on the Hunger Games soundtrack alongside The Civil Wars singing “Safe and Sound”, a pleasantly creaky little song co-written with T Bone Burnett (!); in even my fondest imaginings I’d not dared to hope for such a thing, and it raised a question that suddenly seemed a genuine question: what would she do next?

Red answers the question, but not in a simple way. She’s doing this, that, and the other: the record, which clocks in at over an hour (even without the [not-to-be-missed] bonus tracks), sounds like two or three records thrown together. Songs that would have been at home on her previous few records, like the jaunty “Stay Stay Stay” or the smiling-through-the-tears ballad “Begin Again”, are placed cheek-by-jowl with material that stretches hard toward a trendy pop sound (“State of Grace”, “Treacherous”). After Speak Now, for which she wrote all the songs alone, Red is a real “Swift & Friends” affair: there are several flat-footed duets with male partners hopelessly overmatched by her sparkle, a half-dozen co-writers, and a similar number of producers lending a hand.

Which brings us to the nefarious handiwork of two vandals named Martin & Shellback, enlisted by Ms. Swift to produce a handful of songs (“I Knew you Were Trouble”, “22″, and the monster hit “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). These songs are cause for concern, for in them Swift’s country roots are not only entirely effaced but actually defaced by pop-monster studio gee-whizzery, and in them the neighbourhood girl for whom we felt such wholesome affection struts forth bearing a disturbing resemblance to those dime-a-dozen robo-divas one hears too loudly in shoe stores. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is by far the worst example of this; it makes me ill. I will confess a grudging affection for the groove of “We Are Never Ever…”, which retains a sense of fun (and the cheerful one-take music video will, I predict, have a long life as a favourite of dancing-animal-loving children), but I cannot finally approve of any song sung in a valley girl dialect.

Despite those reservations, there is much on the record to admire. The quality of the songwriting, which has improved markedly with each of her new albums, continues to trend upward. Not that she is (or ever will be) Karen Peris, but within the parameters typical of mainstream pop Taylor Swift is a songwriter to reckon with. Her strength has always been in her expansive melodies, and though to my ear that element is less dazzling on Red than it was previously, she has stepped up in other areas. She is, for instance, at the age of 22, taking strides to shed her teenager-oriented reputation; if her principal audience until now has been teenaged girls and their mothers, Red seems directed more at the moms than the girls. Seeing this, I am inclined to relax my complaints about aspects of this record: growing up is hard to do, and who among us wasn’t a wee bit awkward as we made the transition?

dylan-tempestTempest
Bob Dylan

Dylan’s latest is an ambitious and lively record that I really want to love, but somehow cannot. It is his best record since Modern Times and maybe earlier (pre-modern times?), with generally fine songwriting, superb musicianship, and loads of phlegm. He cannot here be said to be resting on laurels; the record is by turns funny, jaunty, haunting, and disturbing — it is certainly not boring. Yet I find that I do not much enjoy it, and for me I think the principal reason is the dominance, in the music, of the blues. The blues are not my thing, especially in long form. (Quite a few of the songs on Tempest are longer than 7 minutes, which is too long to be sustained by a blues riff.) Also, the title song, about the sinking of the Titanic and weighing in at nearly a quarter-hour in duration, is off-putting; the words are disturbing, but Dylan sings them in a casual, even jovial, manner that makes him sound like a tubercular Bad Santa. To my regret I cannot enjoy it.

dement-singSing the Delta
Iris Dement

It had been over fifteen years since Iris Dement’s last record of original material. She hadn’t been entirely quiet during that time — she sang some celebrated duets with John Prine and she issued an enjoyable hymn-sing — but some of us had been wondering if we’d ever hear new songs from her again. The mere existence of this record, therefore, is cause for some celebration. The chief reason to hear it is the same as it has ever been with her: that voice, which is one of the wonders of American music. It is not conventionally pretty, but it is unforgettable; call her the Callas of country.

The songs themselves are a mixed bag, but with a singer of this stature you take the good (“Before the Colors Fade”) with the bad (“The Night I Learned How Not to Pray”) and count your blessings. Sing the Delta certainly doesn’t replace 1993′s My Life as the first Iris Dement record everyone should own and give to their friends, but it is something to be thankful for in any case.

I note from her Wikipedia page that since her last record she was divorced from her first husband and re-married to Greg Brown. Obviously no mere aesthetic consideration could cast a divorce in a happy light, but I will say that I’d give my left kidney to hear those two singing together.

***

Songs That Meant Something To Me This Year: Loudon Wainwright III & Ramblin’ Jack Elliot: “Double Lifetime”; Josh Garrels: “Farther Along”; Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: “The Quiet Life”; Dan Bern: “I Need You”; The Avett Brothers, “Winter in my Heart”.

Chesterton & Mumford (& Sons)

May 30, 2012

Tonight my wife and I were listening to “The Cave” by Mumford & Sons, and I was struck by a section of the song that I hadn’t much noted before. Mumford sings:

Come out of the cave walking on your hands
See the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s hand

That bit about walking upside down from a cave tugged at my sleeve, and set me scrambling through the Chesterton section of the bookshelf. Sure enough, there is a passage in his book on St. Francis of Assisi in which one finds the following, in connection with a discussion of Francis’ conversion:

Francis, at the time or somewhere about the time when he disappeared into the prison or the dark cavern, underwent a reversal of a certain psychological kind; which was really like the reversal of a complete somersault, in that by coming full circle it came back, or apparently came back, to the same normal posture. It is necessary to use the grotesque simile of an acrobatic antic, because there is hardly any other figure that will make the fact clear. But in the inward sense it was a profound spiritual revolution. The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead, as if he were a ghost or a blessed spirit. And the effects of this on his attitude towards the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them. He looked at the world as differently from other men as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands.

That is rather too close to be a coincidence. And there’s more! A few paragraphs further down one finds this:

… the symbol of inversion is true in another way. If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasise the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging. It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hung the world upon nothing.

So we have a cave, walking upside down, dependence, and the Maker, all four elements being also present in the stanza above.

As you can well imagine, I am quite pleased to have stumbled upon this connection. I would be even more pleased if I were the first to have noted it — but, alas, I am not. A little poking around online turns up others who noticed the same thing: here and here, for instance, and here.

It turns out that Marcus Mumford may be something of a Chesterton enthusiast: last year he chose The Outline of Sanity (which I have written about with striking incompetence here) for the “Mumford & Sons book club”, saying that the book changed his life.

Consider this post, then, as my unoriginal contribution to the study of Chesterton’s impact on popular culture. And listen to this song:

 

Mumford & Sons: After the Storm

June 2, 2011

Last year I put Mumford & Sons’ debut record Sigh No More atop my ‘best of the year’ list, and I haven’t changed my mind in the meantime. I have returned to it again and again, and I continue to find new things in it.

Of late I have been listening with increasing appreciation to the record’s final song, “After the Storm”. I have remarked before on the spiritual vitality of the record as a whole, and this song is a good example. It is poised between earth and heaven, a quiet hymn of a broken heart longing for the beauty and peace of a kingdom not subject to death. “Death is just too full, and man too small. / I’m scared of what’s behind, and what’s before“, he sings, but then a gently lilting melody emerges, like a balm on the heart:

There’ll come a time, you’ll see
With no more tears
And love will not break your heart
But dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see
What you find there
With grace in your heart
And flowers in your hair.

It’s a lovely image on which to end an excellent song and a fine album. Here is Marcus Mumford in a live performance:

Around and about

March 6, 2011

While Antarctica Month was in full swing in February, there were a number of ‘blogging moments’ that I let pass so as not to interrupt the theme. Now that March has arrived, there is opportunity to revisit those topics, albeit briefly. Here is a collection of minor items that caught my attention.

*****

David Bentley Hart, who now seems to be writing for First Things with fair regularity, is a delight to read. Two recent cases in point: a hilarious and high-minded damnation of golf (a nice pendant to his earlier laudatory philosophical essay on baseball), and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, an instructive and thoughtful essay on the significance of Heidigger for modern philosophy. These essays are normally only available to subscribers, but a short-term policy change means that they are currently open to all comers. It would be a shame to miss the opportunity.

*****

A few months ago I noted that a conference at Oxford had been convened on the topic “The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton”. The proceedings of that conference have now appeared in print, with contributions from William Oddie (Chesterton biographer), Aidan Nichols, Ian Ker, John Saward, and others. It looks like a good book to have.

*****

The Grammy Awards were handed out in February, and, much to my surprise (and I think to their surprise too), Arcade Fire won the ‘Album of the Year’ accolades. I’ve taken notice of Arcade Fire a few times over the years, and it was gratifying — even amazing — to see them succeeding on such a big stage. I think their most recent record, The Suburbs, is not as strong as their previous records, but, on the other hand, I would still have picked it over the other ‘Album of the Year’ nominees, which ranged from bland to downright awful.

My biggest question about the Grammy awards this year: ‘Where in the world was Taylor Swift?’ So far I haven’t been given a good explanation.

On the day after the Grammys, can you guess which album topped the sales charts at both Amazon and iTunes? It was Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More, which was my choice, you may recall, for ‘Best Album of 2010′. The band had a short and cramped performance during the Grammy broadcast, and it seems they impressed. Amusingly, they didn’t actually win any awards that night.

*****

The folks at Image Journal have published a list of films they are calling the ‘Arts and Faith Top 100′. This is intended to be a guide to the finest films addressing themselves, in one way or another, to the intersection of art and faith. There are a wide range of films represented; the list is clearly the work of serious cinephiles. Of the 100 films, I have seen only 21, including just two of their top ten. Some of the films I have never heard of before. I was gratified to see several of my favourites on the list, including Magnolia and Ostrov. Unless I am mistaken they have not named a single comedy; that does seem to be an oversight.

*****

Another movie note: a film that I have been anticipating for some time has finally been released in North America. Of Gods and Men, about the lives and deaths of a group of Cistercian monks in Algeria in the 1990s, has been getting strong reviews. It is showing here in town, but sadly I don’t think I’ll have an opportunity to see it. I do want to support films like this, though, so I’ll do what I can: I encourage you to see it in the cinema. Yes, you.

Favourites of 2010: Popular music

December 29, 2010

Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More
My palm this year goes to the debut album from Mumford & Sons, a folk-rock outfit from the UK. I liked it the first time I heard it, and it has continued to grow on me throughout the year. In Marcus Mumford they have a wonderful singer. What really sets the record apart from the competition, however, is the songwriting. It is rare to hear a rock album in which themes of truth, hope, grace, and purity of heart recur, and that fact alone makes Sigh No More rather surprising and special. There is something about the spiritual vitality of this record that reminds me, ever so gently, of a certain Irish band that still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. In the beginning I turned to Sigh No More simply for good music; now I find I go to it for sobriety and refreshment of spirit. No-one is more surprised than I am. [Listen to samples]

Here they are performing “Roll Away Your Stone”. This song starts rather quietly but gathers steam as it goes.

Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series, Volume 9 –
The Witmark Demos: 1962-64

A long time ago, when the world was still young, a collection of Bob Dylan’s early, unpublished songs was issued on a disc called The Bootleg Series, Volume 1. That disc was bread and butter to me. You can imagine my excitement, therefore, when I learned that Volume 9 in the now encyclopedic Bootleg Series was going to revisit those songs again, and the sessions in which they were recorded, issuing two new discs of previously unreleased material. When you love something, the prospect of having “more of the same” is tantalizing indeed.

As it turned out, I found Volume 9 not quite as revelatory as I had hoped: most of the very best material, it seems, had been judiciously chosen for inclusion on Volume 1, so that what remained for Volume 9 has the character of something like musical flotsam and jetsam. Quite a few of the songs here are actually the same as on Volume 1, though in slightly different, and somewhat inferior, versions. In some cases the songs break off in mid-stream, Dylan remarking that he can’t remember the rest. Some of his famous songs are given here in early versions, in a few cases with piano accompaniment: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” among them.

I will say this: if you have not heard the Volume 1 recordings, I do believe that this collection will blow your mind. Even in those early days, Dylan’s songwriting was terrific, and that voice was like a force of nature. In these songs we hear him sending exploratory roots down into the bedrock of American song, and from those roots, as we all know, a mighty oak would grow. Even if I judge that these Volume 9 recordings take second place to Volume 1, this is still an altogether remarkable collection, and one of the best things I heard this year. [Listen to samples]

Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People EP
It seems that the Fifty States Project is dead, and that is a disappointment to me. Sufjan Stevens, after writing two records on Michigan and Illinois, respectively, promised that his life’s work would be to bring each and every state in the union under his musical wing. Such promises must now, I suppose, be attributed to the rashness of youth, for after a five-year hiatus he issued two new records in the closing months of 2010 — the All Delighted People EP in August and The Age of Adz in October — and neither has anything to do with the Fifty States.

Of the two new albums, The Age of Adz is undoubtedly the more ambitious and sweeping. Unfortunately — and I say this with real regret — it is a horrid, beastly thing. He has taken the songs, which for all I know were perfectly good songs, and thrown every kind of cacophonic device into the mix: computer bleeps, static blips, electrical feedback, old-school synthesizers, and, worst of all, drum machines programmed to peck out the herkiest, jerkiest rhythms you ever tried to lay ears on. The result is distressing, and I struggled to listen through to the end.

All Delighted People is another matter, thank goodness. As usual with Stevens the arrangements are elaborate and detailed, but at least here it sounds like music: there are recognizable instruments, and rhythms to which one can tap. There is a celebratory, and even ecstatic, feeling to the record, and he is painting on a larger canvas than before, not only because the songs are long, but conceptually, too, they are moving in a larger space than we have heard from him before. It is hugely ambitious, and he unbuttons a little, which is nice to hear. The guitar freak-out that opens the 17-minute closing song is something we would not have found (and did not find) on his last few records. All in all, it’s a fascinating record that shows that this talented musician still hasn’t reached the end of his tether. The Age of Adz obviously raises the troubling question of what we might expect from him in the future, but I’ll not look a gift-horse in the mouth: All Delighted People is delightful. [Listen to samples]

Taylor Swift: Speak Now
Say what you want about Ms. Swift and the legions of adolescent girls who propelled her, once again, to the top of the chart. The simple truth is that her songs have more hooks than a box of fishing tackle. From the first listen I found Speak Now pretty irresistible.

There is something very likable about Taylor Swift: a girlish charm, an impish sense of humour, a good-natured lack of self-regard, and, without wishing to be overly moralistic, there is something wholesome about her too; she believes in true love, and hers are romances in which marriage and children are the natural telos. It is enough to annoy the heck out of the grey lady feminists, which is great, and it is also something that young girls ought to hear. If it takes an earful of sugar to help that medicine go down, well, I have no objections. It is true that she loses her temper once or twice on this new record (“There is nothing I do better than revenge”), but this is balanced off by moments of moral counsel (“Why ya gotta be so mean?”).

I’m having fun. Well, it’s a fun record. For the first time she wrote all the songs herself, which is itself a noteworthy achievement since every Nashville mother’s son is clamouring to get a song onto one of her records. And, to give Ms. Swift her due, the songwriting on Speak Now is considerably stronger and more consistent than on her previous records. A song like ‘Long Live’, a lively reflection on fame and friendship, would have overreached her ability before; not this time. [Listen to samples]

Honourable mention: Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone [Listen to samples]; Innocence Mission, My Room in the Trees [Listen to samples]

Sunday night Mumford & Sons

April 25, 2010

Sigh No More, the debut album from a British outfit called Mumford & Sons, is one of the best records I’ve heard in the past year.  They’ve a pleasing acoustic texture that fits me like an old and comfortable sweater, with attractively scratchy tenor vocals, and the words of the songs gesture, at least, at the deeps.

Here is a song from the record called “The Cave”.  I am not sure I think much of the “concept” in this video, as it seems more of a distraction, or at least incidental to the point of the song, but I suppose that is true of most such things.

There’s one bit in the words that I especially like.  It goes like this:

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

The obvious word to end that last line is “throat”, not “neck”, since it would be at least a rough rhyme, and “neck” doesn’t rhyme with anything.  It reminds me of something Lyle Lovett did back on The Road to Ensenada, in a song called “Her First Mistake”:

Yes, my dear, I know exactly what you mean
There’s not so much I haven’t done or seen
And may I say that your eyes
Are the loveliest shade of jade?

One expects “green” in that last line, of course; “jade” is jarring, but then it picks up the internal rhyme and ends up being witty.  Mumford & Sons aren’t witty in that sense, at least not here.  Anyway, this is a pretty insubstantial talking point, so let me bring this preamble to a close.  Here is the song:

If you like that, I recommend listening also to the record’s title track, which is terrific.  It gathers steam as it goes, so don’t give up too soon.

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