Stairiker: Mumford and Sons, Lumineers rely on boring songwriting techniques

Kevin Stairiker

Kevin StairikerI 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 kevin.stairiker@temple.edu.

8 Comments

  1. Do you think that Dr. Dog, if ever, were as successful as Mumford, that they wouldn’t stick to a formula that got them their success? I do. It’s what bands do to survive financially.

    While I don’t disagree totally with what you’re saying, I have to defend their approach to music.
    What may be boring to you is, apparently, judging from their sales, entertaining to others. Enough, for that matter, to have more “creative” bands open for them.

    That being said, I got their album, and don’t hear a need to get any others until they stop making the same song.
    Mumford, you’re not alone in this.
    I can apply the same argument to AC/DC, The Ramones, and many others, as well.

  2. I find this interesting. I’m not a Mumford’s fan. I did like Little Lion Man and yes you’re right the following album was samey and predictable. I enjoyed listening to it but I wouldn’t listen over and over again.

    Great to have a folk band representation in the main stream music but to my mind they are just a bit too polished, a bit to niche to be proper folk.

    Most bands have a sound, a style they fall into and once they have success with a certain formula tend to stick with it, develop it…even do it to death. What happens? it becomes samey and predictable. Folk is best heard live with energy, passion and atmospheric chemistries between band members and audiences.

    Listening to a track over and over again it is easy to become over familiar, even bored. Heard live the same track can and often is, different every time.

    Song writing isn’t difficult, writing a great song is. It must be very constraining to have the need to write something catchy with maybe 3 verses and a chorus and a bridge. If in setting out to write a hit song you look for a hook or try to write on trend it is inevitable predictability takes over from creativity at some point.

    Is anything new any more? I once read and I agree that creativity is finding the link between two seemingly unrelated subjects, words, concepts, styles, keys etc. At the risk of being too clever there are only so many things you can butt up together. The best songs get you from the start whether is be lyrically or musically and I don’t think you can manufacture that. It either happens or it don’t.

    So many new songs are already familiar because they are written to certain familiar formula and no doubt it is to brainwash the mass public into recognising the norm, the safe. They just want to sell us what they think we want to hear……no surprisingly for a lot of us they get it way off the mark.

    I agree with this article and would like to say to all those music fans who have never been to a live gig, my suggestion is that you get out there and see what’s going on in and around your local music scene. I think you will be pleasantly surprised and if you are not impressed then go back to your mainstream, samey, churned out for the masses music but please don’t knock it til you’ve at least tried it.

  3. Kevin,
    What an insightful article. Lemmings all rush to put on the Johnny Bravo suit. But just because an artist plays a “parlor” guitar and wears a fedora, doesn’t mean that they are a road weary troubadour from the backwoods of Tennessee. I think people eventually see through that. Americana has become the great and guilt free catch all.

  4. Technique schmechnique. It’s all about the melody. I can listen to 50 strummy songs in G back to back as long as they have strong melodies. The thing is, most people can’t write great songs or strong melodies.

  5. Reading Stairiker article bring back fond memories. I am 62 years old and can clearly remember the critisism brought upon Bob Dylan , The Beatles and Rolling Stones in the sixties. From the music press and others main stream people. The music was too simple, the artists too simple and the folks who loved it rather ignorant. They just didnt get it. For me Mumford and Son is somthing new and refreshing , and since I have been a life long fan og both Bob Dylan and Fairport Convention I appreciate the folky sound. And there is something else as well. I have never seen them live, but the wonderful world of YouTube has many gigs by them available . And it tells that Mumford and Son is at its best as a live band. There are not many musicians around that can equal the atmosphere they can produce…

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