What do you get IF you cross a wholesome British folk rock group with singers from Senegal and Malawi, a buzzy South African trio, and two all-night recording sessions in Johannesburg? A pretty solid EP, as it turns out: Mumford & Sons’ ‘Johannesburg’ isn’t a lame pastiche, but nor is it a revelation.
The band’s announcement of the fusion EP in April came less than a year after the release of their banjo-ditching rock album ‘Wilder Mind’. But it’s far from a dilettante project, partially thanks to their collaborators: Winston Marshall is toting the banjo once more, and his group is joined by Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, Malawian-British singer-producer combo The Very Best and Cape Town band Beatenberg. Crucially for the EP’s success, all are given an equal chance to exhibit their skills. Maal’s clarion of a voice, in particular, is a formidable asset.
So does ‘Johannesburg’ still sound like Mumford & Sons? Yes and no. The union of Afrobeat with the band’s rousing choruses appears to be the point of this experiment – which means Marcus Mumford’s weathered roar isn’t always the dominant feature of every song, and the crowd-pleasing climaxes that his band are so good at orchestrating are often offset by lilting melodies and varied instrumentation.
Mumford’s heavyweight vocal entry midway through ‘Ngamila’ proves that seamless interaction between the two is something the groups can achieve together, but it doesn’t always work: on ‘Wona’, Beatenberg singer Matthew Field’s gorgeous verses skip breezily along like something on Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ only to be trampled by Mumford in the chorus. Their winning performance of ‘Wona’ on Later… With Jools Holland in April, though, proves this is something that matters far less live than on record.
That song contains the EP’s most alarmingly ambiguous lyric (“won’t deny I love you helpless”) but otherwise the album’s words are split between vaguely life-affirming nothings (“There is a time to love, a time to sing, a time to shine”) and lovestruck lethargy (“What a fool you call home”). When the disparate influences mesh properly – as on the irresistible ‘Fool You’ve Landed’ – they find a very happy medium.