I must profess: upon the 2009 release of “Little Lion Man,” it could be said that I had something of a soft spot for Mumford & Sons. Whether it was manic banjo picking, the cute way Marcus Mumford pretended to buck authority with liberal sprinklings of “f—” throughout the chorus or even something as insignificant as the band name’s allusions to one of my favorite TV Land shows, something was there.
I listened to the song frequently, never really thinking that I’d care to hear another of the band’s songs or even a full album. Nevertheless, I tried to listen to the band’s first album, “Sigh No More.” I really tried. What I found was an album that essentially had two different types of songs on it: loud acoustic stomp-folk and soft, gently guitar-picked acoustic folk.
At times I wasn’t sure when one song ended and another began and as much as I enjoyed “Little Lion Man,” I wasn’t crazy about listening to 12 different variations on that particular theme. Two years later, the Mumfords won the Best Album award at the Grammys.
What ended up being even more confusing than Mumford & Sons’ initial and continued success was the emergence of sound-a-like songs and bands that followed in a similar “G chord and a smile” blueprint. The Lumineers are the most clearly indebted, though the band at least has moderately different sounding songs.
Like most bands in the past few years, The Lumineers’ appearance in the collective music conscious was firstly due to rampant marketing. “Ho Hey,” the duller-than-dull first single from a band I would soon learn is very good at that sort of thing, was featured in a commercial for perennially second place Internet search engine Bing. After seeing the commercial roughly 3,000 times, I was convinced that the “I belong with you, you belong with me” of the chorus was the new Bing theme song, a sort of musical token of love from the search engine to the viewer. Not only was I very wrong, but also it turned out that the band that gave its song to Microsoft ironically, and the band was one that wholeheartedly embraced the same prospector-style mindset that Mumford & Sons does. Whereas Mumford & Sons merely suggests ties with bygone eras in its music, the Lumineers flaunt its old-timey persona openly with songs like “Charlie Boy” and “Flapper Girl.”
More perplexing still about the growing popularity of the aesthetic is that the people who look to the Mumfords and Lumineers as the flag-wavers for back-to-basics folk pop have so many better options. Take persistent Philly favorite Dr. Dog, for instance. Throughout the seven albums its released thus far, the band has gone through every variation of sunny pop music there is, mining various styles that predate it by decades in a way that doesn’t knock listeners repeatedly over the head with a proverbial frying pan. As a show of appreciation for its efforts, Dr. Dog can soon be found opening up for the Lumineers at this year’s XPoNential Festival.
Of course, listeners of all music genres can be found guilty for occasionally picking the store-brand, easily digestible version of something great, but in most cases, time has proven what happens with the store brands.
On paper, the success of these bands is a good thing. Instruments – much less acoustic ones – and harmonious vocals stand out pretty extravagantly in this age of bleep-bloops and bass drops. However, there is only so much mileage any sort of band can get strumming chords. Add on the fact that most of the songs that both of these bands produce end up being in the same key, rhythm and even chord progressions at some points – I’m looking right at you, “Ho Hey” and “I Will Wait” – and it becomes very challenging to withstand the feeling of massive ambivalence.
There are those that will argue that, much like in the early ’90s with bands like Blues Traveler and Hootie and The Blowfish, these bands represent a popular alternative to the regular four-on-the-floor blandness of whatever constitutes as the radio these days.
What these people don’t realize is that this bizarre aping of Americana, even with the banjos, is just a different variation on that same four-on-the-floor blandness. Except instead of augmenting simple melodies with a synth, the Mumfords and Lumineers dress theirs in suit jackets and obvious minor-chord changes.
Just remember the next time you see someone bashing out some acoustic drudgery on Liacouras Walk that the only difference between that person and a Mumford next-of-kin is that sweet, sweet bass drum gently tapping out a four count.
Kevin Stairiker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.