October 2, 2009
Album review: Mumford & Sons - 'Sigh No More'
A charmingly rustic debut that suggests greater things might still be to come
The problem of authenticity in folk is as old as the Appalachians. Ever since masters of the form were plucked from under rocks and corralled into chic NYC café venues for the edification of right-on students in the early ’60s, folk has signalled something desirable yet tantalisingly out-of-reach for fed-up inhabitants of the lonesome, crowded west.
Mumford and Sons might sound like the name of a defunct timber supply yard you were sworn off playing around by your mum as a nipper, but in fact it’s the ongoing concern of four young fellows from London; a name that fixes the band in a long tradition of ramblin’, gamblin’ truth-tellers with guitars, and proudly announces authenticity shot through their spindly frames like sticks of rock.
All of which is complete bollocks, of course. They’re no more authentic than my dog is a communist triple agent. But Mumford & Sons is also descriptive of a certain passion and heartfelt attention to detail which could be about to serve Marcus Mumford and his merry band of cohorts mighty well indeed.
Formed in late 2007 through a shared love of country, bluegrass and folk, the Mummers belong to a clique that’s already scaled grand artistic peaks; performers such as Laura Marling and Noah And The Whale taking the shambling, confessional style of the New York anti-folk scene and fleshing it out for broader commercial appeal. Initially known as the on-off backing band for Marling, the group finally step out of the shadows with ‘Sigh No More’, staking its claim as The Band to the elfin one’s Bob Dylan. The result is a record to rouse rabbles and warm cockles in equal measure, full of salty words to the wise and buoyed by Arcade Fire and The Maccabees accomplice Markus Dravs’ slick production job.
Dravs’ presence is telling because, despite its racing banjos and keening mandolins, ‘Sigh No More’ is basically an indie-pop record in chunky knit clothing. It confirms the Mummers as being to callow, slightly precocious folk what The Maccabees are to callow, slightly precocious indie. So while tracks such as ‘Timshel’ fall short of Fleet Foxes’ bucolic chops or Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s depth, the band counters with a punchy agenda all of its own.
As such, ‘Winter Winds’ finds a cracking midway point between The Pogues’ gilded pomp and Beirut’s brassy, processional pop. And the rollicking title track has Mumford pleading “Love, it will not betray, dismay or enslave you/It will set you free” like a bluegrass Caleb Followill. Lead single ‘Little Lion Man’ is a fine exercise in route-one anthemics, but ‘Thistle & Weeds’ is better, a storm-tossed epic building to a blockbuster finale with crashing piano lines and blaring horns.
There remain gaps in the proverbial beard growth: ‘I Gave You All’ makes an unwelcome tilt into melodrama while ‘The Cave’ sounds like it should be played through a veil of freshers’ week tears after a drunken grope failed to make the earth move: “I’ll find strength in pain/And I will change my ways/I’ll know my name as it’s called again”. Not to put too fine a point on it, but at times they need to man the fuck up.
Angst-ridden indiscretions aside, ‘Sigh No More’ is a fine debut from a band that’s patiently picked up the tools of its trade, and chosen the right moment to give them full rein. If Mumford and Sons aren’t exactly keeping it real, they’re certainly keeping it in the family. Just not in that way, m’kay?
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