I originally came across Mumford and Sons by accident, when they supported A Hawk And A Hacksaw at Birmingham’s Glee Club. It would be a rare act that could hold their own on a bill with that band, but Marcus Mumford and pals managed it. Humble but confident, they made a sound which quite belied their small number and rickety set-up. It helped, too, that their chosen shtick – a sort of countryish lovelorn folk – was pretty much right up my street.
“White Blank Page”, the song I most remembered from that show and which long-time readers might remember from this post, is present and correct on their first proper album, Sigh No More, which was released this week. The song has predictably been expanded beyond that live version – all swelling choirs and slick production – but by the same token it, like the rest of this record, feels natural and logical rather than forced and over-stretched. It’s impossible to avoid comparisons with Noah & The Whale, with whom Mumford & Sons are connected in myriad ways (including the less than convincingly countryish well-heeled King’s College School, Wimbledon): Sigh No More, like that other band’s debut, Peaceful The World Lays Me Down, is all gently maudlin lyrics and rousing Americana, and the two acts have the same charming way of pulling off this potentially sickly combination.
Don’t underestimate the power of the banjo in all this: ‘Country’ Winston Marshall gives the instrument makes it the blistering engine of the band, a sort of hipster Earl Scruggs. The band’s love of the bass drum adds depth and impact to the music, too, and in a way this emphasis on the structure and texture of the songs is wise: Mumford’s lyrics are overly clumsy. In a sense, this awkwardness is part of the project – the songs are not traditional country pieces, and the ill-fitting lyrics make this clear (indeed, one of the album’s biggest bum notes – “Dustbowl Dance”, fails because it finds Mumford trying to be Woody Guthrie). Still, they make the separation occassionally clearer than it needs to be. There is a thin line between an ingenue pose, poetic licence, and just sounding a little silly.
The band leap this pit with aplomb, however, and carry the listener away with the sheer exuberance of their arrangements.Mumford’s raspy and untutored voice, too, adds grit to proceedings. It helps if you like fiddles and double bass, but much like Viarosa (though less self-consciously), these are essentially standard indie songs played with acoustic instrumentation. If this makes for a few over-earnest moments, the band cannot be accused of aiming low. ‘Stirring’ is their target, and they hit it squarely. Take a punt on them.