I have to admit, I’d never heard of Mumford and Sons before a couple days ago, and then it was only because I was looking for something to write about and saw them trending on Google. I proceeded to research a little and discovered that they are a popular group of “folk-rock” that has recently released a new album called Babel. Being not only an opportunist but a huge folk music fan, I decided this was the perfect subject for a review, so here it is, my opinion of the album Babel, by the band Mumford and Sons, but first …
A brief history of folk music
Folk music has changed over the years, hasn’t it?
Gone are the days of buck-dancing on the porch until your boots caught fire and burned your shack down to the ground. Gone are the days when you spent an entire week in the coal mines turning your lungs into mush and then on Sunday you’d gather up the whole family for a big hoedown in the barn; where a close relative of indeterminate affiliation to you (he reached the inbreeding singularity after being born from the marriage of your cousin-brother-grandfather and his sister-cousin-aunt-brother) would furiously saw at the fiddle while you cut the rug like it ain’t nobody’s business with Jenny-Sue Dibny from across the field.
No more of those beautifully simple songs about mountain birds and murdering your wife. No more clawhammer banjo or the High Lonesome Sound. After the 60s, the folk road forked into two distinct paths: the politically charged “protest songs” popularized by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan*, and the “Bluegrass” of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. The old-timey Appalachian folk of yore more or less disappeared into irrelevance. In those times you either went full hippie, or full hillbilly.
Fast forward to the 2000s: both the protest song and the Bluegrass, with few notable exceptions, have now descended into obscurity valley, to stand right alongside the old-timey Appalachian folk that was there before them. A few modern artists, however, in their quest for originality after the indie well from the 90s went dry, seemed to have stumbled into that music limbo by accident and, taking after the mixture of Céilí music and Punk Rock pioneered by The Pogues, gave progeny to the indie-folk-rock, or alt-country, or whatever you call it, that we have today, as represented by such bands as Wilco, The Silver Jews, and, now, indeed, Mumford and Sons.
Mumford and Sons is an English band created in 2007 by multi-instrumentalists Marcus Mumford, Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall and Ted Dwane, who sprang into the “West London Folk” scene and, in a short two years, were already enjoying huge success with their hit single “Little Lion Man,” from their Sigh No More album, and now, have followed it with Babel, and whatever fragments of true folk music survived from the old days are pretty much indistinguishable from the overall muck.
Babel starts off on a relatively high note with the eponymous track, “Babel.” After surviving the entirety of "Little Lion Man" - a song, by the way, where the vocalist does his best to fool us into thinking he is the guy from The Coral - I was somewhat wary of what I might find in this album, but was treated to a pleasant surprise. I wouldn’t say Babel kicks major ass, but it does certainly kick a pretty average sized ass. Or, if it doesn’t kick it, it at least prods it vigorously with its foot. The song has a little of that windy feel of the ancient Appalachian tradition, of insistent guitars and building energy, with a nice touch of the vigorous melodic qualities of the Celtic-inspired English Medieval Ballads.
“Right on,” I thought. “This isn’t gonna be so bad after all.”
Things go downhill from song two onwards, and never pick up until the kind-of-cool "Hopeless Wanderer," which comes too late to salvage the remainder of the album.
I was holding on strong up until "Holland Road," the fourth song, when there was still some country flavor to the tunes that set them apart from the regular ol’ everyday brit-pop that most people’s brains have conditioned themselves to ignore along other components of the surrounding ambient noise like car honks and creaking pipes. Then came “Ghosts That We Knew” and the album officially lost me. The only “folk” element to be found in the melodies going forward is the occasional banjo roll in the background, and you might as well just pop one of those Coldplay CDs into the player and the experience will be the same.
You know what? Every track of this album has a corresponding song, with the same overall feel, from a different, better artist that you should listen to instead. So I will do you a favor and try to list each of them off the top of my head:
1. "Babel": Dropkick Murphys – "Flannigans Ball"
2. "Whispers in The Dark": Abigail Washburn – "Sometimes"
3. "I Will Wait": Ola Belle Reed – "High On a Mountain"
4. "Holland Road": Jack White – "Blunderbuss"
5. "Ghosts That We Knew": Abigail Washburn – "Oh, Captain"
6. "Lover Of The Light": Loretta Lynn & Jack White – "Portland Oregon"
7. "Lover’s Eyes": Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová – "When Your Mind’s Made Up"
8. "Reminder": Gomez – "Bubblegum Years"
9. "Hopeless Wanderer": The Coral – "I Remember When"
10. "Broken Crown": Murder by Death – "No Oath, No Spell"
11. "Below My Feet": Leonard Cohen – "If it be Your Will"
12. "Not With Haste": Beethoven – "Pathetique Sonata (2nd Movement)"
So, in the end, Babel is a mostly boring album with flickers of genius that never go anywhere and it won’t carry the Folk Flag on to new generations of potential fans. Buy it if you have a reasonable amount of disposable income.
* - And later various folk-rock bands like Buffalo Springfield, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Band.