We Need the Folk. We Gotta Have That Folk.

Recently, within a couple of weeks of each other, new albums were released from Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, and Bob Dylan.  I was struck by this timing because at the 2011 Grammy Awards show, these three artists were featured together in a sort of Old Guard/New Guard folk-pop segment. It was a wonderfully engaging segment.  Mumford & Sons delivered “The Cave” with the kind of earnest intensity that marked all of their debut album.  The Avett Brothers performed the lilting and lovely “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” just grandly.  Then, as if he was crashing some kid’s party, Dylan wandered out through the curtains to hold court on “Maggie’s Farm” while the younger folkies enthusiastically backed him up. He was certainly not as spry as his much younger contemporaries, but he just has a captivating presence that makes you watch with rapt attention. Watching Dylan fills me with a strange combination of delight, respect, fascination, curiosity, confusion, horror, awkwardness, and admiration. Mostly, it’s just greatness . But as much as I enjoyed watching him in this Grammy performance, I enjoyed watching the obvious admiration that Mumford and Avett had for Dylan even more.  The band members, joining forces with some of Dylan’s own musicians, sang, played, and watched in awe as the master of their craft held court, allowing them to play along with his 45 year-old masterpiece.

The emotional thread of that Grammy performance kind of mirrors how I felt while listening to these three artist’s new releases, in the same order that they appeared on the show.

First, Mumford & Sons delivered a familiar, good, aggressively strummed, earnest folk-rock record that goes to a lot of the same places as their debut.  They come across very serious as they self-inspect and explore their humanness against the backdrop of God’s mysterious universe – again, much like their first record.  Then, kind of like a little brother (though I realize that they have been making records for several years longer), The Avett Brothers followed with a more whimsical, light-hearted, playful look at similar themes – also much like their previous work, but still very enjoyable.

But wait – here come Grandpa Bob strolling into the room, with a glass bourbon in one hand and a microphone in the other.  His songs, while cut ostensibly from the same cloth, immediately take us to a different world than the previous two albums.  This is a world not of speculation and consideration, but of experience.  A world of someone who has lived long and deep.  And while Mumford and Avett sound just delightful while we go about our days, Dylan makes us stop and pay attention.  I imagine those other bands setting down their instruments and just sitting captivated as Grandpa Bob begins telling his stories.  He sings long, fascinating tales.  His topics range from consideration on the end of his life, working out his salvation (while also working out his number of lovers), and remembrances of John Lennon, to berating politicians, doomed love triangles, and a 14 minute waltzing ode to the those who were on the Titanic.  And through all of this, not a single word feels wasted.  And when it’s all said and done, I’ve completely forgotten that I had listened to the other albums.

Taking each album at face value, I like all three.  But side by side, these are not equal.  I’ll briefly summarize them like this:

Bob Dylan, Tempest – One of Dylan’s best, and certainly one of this year’s best.  I get that Dylan is not for everyone.  In truth, I don’t always make the connection.  But I did this time.  This album both grabs me by the throat, and makes me feel like I need to clear it.  Dylan’s songwriting remains sharp.  Musically, this is wonderfully layered and interesting.  My favorite tracks include the shuffling “Duquesne Whistle”, the malt-shop vibed “Soon After Midnight”, the Blonde on Blonde-esque “Long and Wasted Years”,   The pop driven “Pay In Blood”, and the beautiful ballad “Roll On, John”.

The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter –  The brothers Avett have always been rooted in pop as much as folk.  Maybe even more so, lately.  I don’t mean this as a bad thing.  I have always loved this band and really dig this album a lot.  I actually think their continued progression shows some growth on the band’s part.  Some don’t like growth because it means change.  And certainly, not all growth and change is good.  But I think it’s necessary to avoid becoming irrelevant.  That having been said, The Carpenter is a perfectly delightful offering in which band-growth is no better than subtle. Fans will approve, and new listeners will find something that delight’s them.  My favorites include “The Once and Future Carpenter” (very folky), “Winter In My Heart” (folk-pop ballad), “Pretty Girl From Michigan” (thankfully bringing back the “Pretty Girl From…” theme of previous records).  and the infectiously catchy and dark “Geraldine” (which really isn’t folk at all).

Mumford & Sons,  Babel –  As I stated earlier, this sounds much like their debut album Sigh No More.  I mean, a LOT like it.  Look – I loved Sigh No More.  I called it my favorite album of 2010.  So hearing more songs that sound like that album isn’t really a bad thing, right?  It’s kind of fun!  LIke discovering the album wasn’t actually over yet.  But I heard that album a lot.  Both because of my own listening and because of its massive popularity and exposure.  And I got pretty worn out by it.  So as a result, it doesn’t take long to feel pretty tired of Babel.  It doesn’t mean the songs aren’t good.  They are!  It just sounds reeeeeeeeeeely familiar.  But there are highlights!  The album’s best track is “Lover of the Light”, an anthem which will become an instant Mumford classic and show stopper.  My other album faves include “Lovers’ Eyes” and “Whispers In the Dark”.

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~ by themattmorrisshow on October 22, 2012.

2 Responses to “We Need the Folk. We Gotta Have That Folk.”

  1. Good article, Matt. Speaking of folk: The Head and The Heart are wrapping up a tour right now, then headed to the studio to record their sophomore album; should be exciting…

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