The Challenge of Making Good Folk-Pop Music

“Daddy, can you play the rabbit song?”

I’ve heard this from my nearly-three year old daughter at the beginning of every car trip the past week or two, ever since I bought The Carpenter, the new album by the North Carolina folk-rock band The Avett Brothers, and she heard the second track, known outside our family as “Live and Die.” Cue up to 0:40 to understand why Lena calls it the rabbit song:

“Fear like a habit / Run like a rabbit” gets Lena smiling every time. And when she hears the second verse rhyme sparrow with Pharaoh and roses with Moses, she perks up again: “That’s what you’re teaching in Sunday School, Daddy!”

The fact that this album is right in the wheelhouse of a somewhat precocious toddler would probably not have surprised Grantland writer Steven Hyden, who called the Avetts’ effort “sweet but airheaded,” in a piece that lumped the Avetts together with British folk revivalist band Mumford & Sons, with whom they shared a medley at the Grammy awards in 2011.

Mumford & Sons, Sigh No MoreSo I don’t think he’d be surprised to learn that Lena’s twin brother is a devotee of Mumford. Isaiah constantly clamors for their album Sigh No More — what he calls “Sorry music” after the “I’m sorry / I’m sorry” line on its first track — and enjoys belting out the refrain of its second track, “The Cave”: “But I will hold on hope / And I won’t let you choke / On the noose around your neck.” Fortunately, his preschool teachers haven’t deciphered his joyful but somewhat garbled singing of that lyric yet, but that’s one reason I bought The Carpenter: in hopes of redirecting his love for pop music made with banjos.

Of both groups, Hyden wrote:

…life itself is an earnest testimonial to the primacy of unpluggin’ it. Both bands share an aggressive showiness when it comes to demonstrating exactly how passionate they are about the hardscrabble authenticity of their organic instrumentation. They sing with the force and volume of a Baptist choir, and slash away at their guitar strings like a Mennonite version of Slayer.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I like listening to both bands’ recorded output. And even though I’d admit to finding the Mumfords a one-trick pony (one very catchy trick), The Avetts have at least half a dozen musical tricks up their sleeves and seem like an exhilarating live band. (The new album even has a track that one critic described as “art-rock.”)

But the kind of criticism they’ve been receiving makes me wonder again why it’s so hard to make good music that’s both pop (and popular) and folk. It seems like that hybrid routinely runs at least one of two risks:

It feels inauthentic

Mumford and SonsThat’s the chief complaint levied against singer-songwriter Marcus Mumford and “Sons” — for example, in a famously brutal review of Sigh No More by Pitchfork critic Stephen M. Deusner. In giving the album a 2.1/10 score, Deusner took issue with everything from the band’s very name (“a play at quaint family businesses… both independent (yes, as in indie) and commercial. It’s a shallow cry of authenticity”) to the band’s tried-and-true formula of crescendoing to dramatic choruses: “Every hoedown on Sigh No More– every rush of instruments in rhythmic and melodic lockstep — conveys the same sense of hollow, self-aggrandizing drama. And they pull that sh** on every track.”

Deusner wasn’t especially impressed by the album’s many ballads of love gone wrong (“For music that ostensibly prizes the appearance of honesty and confession, Sigh No More sounds surprisingly anonymous…”), but he was even less happy with the Steinbeck rewrite near the album’s conclusion:

…”Dust Bowl Dance” kicks up some American Gothic ambience with what sounds like the least believable stab at a murder ballad ever set to record. “I’ll go out back and I’ll get my gun,” Mumford sings, like a man who had never handled a firearm in his life. “I said, ‘You haven’t met me, I am the only son.'” When the Sons’ electric guitars finally kick in, the song descends from ill-advised to downright embarrassing. Live, it’s probably their closer, but “Dust Bowl Dance” hints that Mumford & Sons are in the costume business. They’re playing dress-up in threadbare clothes.

The “dress-up in threadbare clothes” critique is one that Mumford & Sons find hard to shake (and probably don’t lose much sleep over). I haven’t seen Pitchfork skewer their new album, Babel, yet, but recently Jordan Bloom identified an “obvious disjuncture between Mumford and Sons’ down-home earnestness–which is a sham anyway, Marcus Mumford went to Kings College School–and the fact that the band tours the world and sells millions of albums distributed by Sony (in this country). It’s a Marxist-style critique, but who cares. Playing a banjo onstage at the Grammys is different than playing it on a porch in Kentucky.” Following the “Marxist-style” logic to its conclusion seems to leave an impossible question: how can you take a musical form rooted in the deprivation, desperation, and discrimination experienced by those on society’s margins, put it in the hands of children of privilege, watch them earn millions of dollars/pounds, and still find any degree of authenticity?

Perhaps the most incisive critique along these lines came from another conservative writer, Matthew Schmitz, who finds Mumford’s songs shallow counterfeits of the actual folk music that inspired the genre that has gone by that name in the last half-century:

In subject and in style, the music of Mumford and Sons is nostalgic and subjective rather than historical and committed. Traditional folk and roots music, when it is not merely humanely, honestly simple and silly, is about spiritual, sexual, and political yearning. Praising Christ, lamenting death, demanding justice. The singer has an existential position—as sinner, laborer, husband, wife—from which they sing. And the audience must take sides. For revenge of an infidelity, for redress of an injustice, for the glory of God.

But Mumford does not demand any public or existential commitment from its listeners. It is the typical suburban song-spinning of popular music, but unlike that popular music it affects to be about something more. Mumford seems to be incapable of writing serious songs and unwilling to write ones that eschew bombast. Hence the vague historical and religious references. Hence the waistcoats sans jackets, the odd assemblage of nonsense wardrobe items that share no connection to each other beyond their outmodedness.

It’s insufferably earnest

The Avett Brothers in 2009
The Avetts performing in 2009 – Creative Commons (Moses)

This is also an easy charge to lay at the feet of Mr Mumford & Co, whom Deusner also accuses of filling Sigh No More with “exaggerated earnestness on consignment from the Avett Brothers.”

Perhaps because they actually come from the American South (albeit a city of 80,000 in the Charlotte metro area), the Avetts seem to suffer less from the “inauthentic” charge. At least, until they started to record with Rick Rubin, when people like me began to accuse them of polishing away their rough edges. Fortunately, The Carpenter feels a bit more ramshackle.

But Hyden found it impossibly earnest: “If it’s possible to have negative amounts of guile, then the Avetts have filed for guile Chapter 11 with The Carpenter.” All things are relative, of course: for being guileless, The Avetts have nothing on the folk acts of the 1950s and 1960s skewered so mercilessly in Christopher Guest’s mockumentary A Mighty Wind.

(For a different kind of critique of that older generation of folk-pop music that, in a way, combines the inauthenticity/earnestness concerns, read Noah Berlatsky’s essay on the Pete [Seeger] Remembers Woody [Guthrie] double album. He comes away from it still loving Pete Seeger, but reminded again that “one of the not-so-secret truths of the old Popular Front folkies was that however pure their politics, their music wasn’t all that great.” Nor were the politics as inspiring as he’d prefer. (Or so pure — he doesn’t mention that Guthrie sang in praise of Stalin’s invasion of Poland in 1939.) Listening to Seeger talk about Guthrie’s song, “Tom Mooney is Free,” Berlatsky concludes, “the lyrics are banal agitprop—and, worse, demonstrate the extent to which the new socialist agitprop was virtually indistinguishable from advertising jingles.”)

Listen to an album like The Carpenter (or an old Weavers LP) back-to-back with, oh, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (compiled in the 1950s from Prohibition-era folk, country, and blues recordings), and you’ll rethink any assumption that folk music need be innocent to be heartfelt. A document of what Greil Marcus, in his essay for the 1997 reissue, called “weird, old America,” it presents a folk music that was dark, funny, strange, and (to a surprising extent) popular.

Which is why the best rebuttal to the notion that it’s impossible to make folk music that’s popular and good is still the third musician who played in that 2011 Grammy medley. Let’s pick back up with Grantland‘s Hyden and his critique of the Avetts’ and Mumfords’ “aggressive showiness”:

Bob Dylan in 1963
Bob Dylan in 1963 – Wikimedia

This jumpy, shouty gusto suits Mumford and the Avetts; plus, they look great — those black vests and bolo ties really bring out the sparkle in their eyes and the delicate shape of their cheekbones. They are, in other words, natural-born stars.

But they’re not Bob Dylan. That was abundantly clear during the Grammys segment, which began with Mumford and the Avetts playing one song each, and doing their respective our-hearts-are-bursting-out-of-our-chests shtick. Then Dylan sauntered in. And I do mean saunter; rarely has the word “saunter” been more appropriate to describe the lackadaisical nature of an entrance. If the opening acts played as if there were a rocket launcher pressed against their temples, Dylan approached the performance and its inherently ridiculous premise with as much reverence as it deserved. Not only did he come out without an acoustic guitar — kind of an important prop considering the circumstances — he did a light jog through a comically under-rehearsed “Maggie’s Farm,” the famously electric song that Dylan shoved in the faces of acoustic-fetishizing purists during his iconic Newport Folk Festival appearance 46 years earlier. This is why you can’t take Bob Dylan anywhere — you never know what he’ll do, though you can assume it won’t be boring.

Reviewing Dylan’s new album, Tempest, (which is chock-full of historical and biblical references and early 20th century musical styles — if not the all-acoustic folk so beloved by many at Newport) and finding The Carpenter severely wanting by comparison, Hyden concluded that it’s a “mix of profundity and loopiness that makes Tempest — despite being the year’s most morbid record not released by a metal band from Florida or Norway — so entertaining, even fun.” More than a half-century after he emerged in Greenwich Village as one in a long line of Woody Guthrie imitators, Dylan remains the darkest, funniest, strangest, and most popular singer-songwriter to emerge from the folk genre — and the least concerned with coming as off as either earnest or authentic.

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