GUITARS boost the sound, but not the soul of Mumford and Co, finds Fiona Shepherd as she and our other Scotsman music critics review this week’s album releases
It’s not the usual order of things – form band, conquer the world, buy electric guitar – but that’s how things have played out for Mumford & Sons who picked up their banjos and acoustic guitars in London in the late 2000s, soared to success in the States with their manicured, Anglicised version of bluegrass, becoming one of the world’s biggest bands, and have now chosen to adopt a sound more in keeping with their stadium-friendly peers by embracing electric guitars and using a drummer – not for the first time, but more consistently – to instantaneously beefier effect.
It’s hardly Bob Dylan plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival but it does at least address the criticism that the group were resting on their laurels with second album Babel. Banjo player Winston Marshall went as far as to declare his hatred for the instrument and has now grown his hair in protest (or maybe because that’s what young, fresh-faced musicians do to indicate that they are adopting more of a hoary rock stance).
Their electric line-up has resulted in more of a band songwriting effort, in which they have been assisted by producer Aaron Dessner, who also contributed on guitar and drums. But there’s nothing to frighten the horses here. Wilder Mind kicks off in mellifluous style with Tompkins Square Park, a wholly inoffensive whimsy, with a mildly driving outro which won’t give Fleetwood Mac any sleepless nights when they next rev up The Chain.
Believe, The Wolf and Ditmas are all accomplished examples of a familiar strain of middle-of-the-road pop rock, with blandly questioning lyrics – you can hear the influence of Dessner’s band The National in particular on the latter track – while the understated embellishing licks on the moody alt.country track Monster are reasonably tasty.
There are times when they overdo the guitars – understandable when you are getting to grips with a fab new toy – but their new electric armoury is generally deployed with some restraint, held back for the big rousing finish which they used to achieve by strumming faster and upping the pace.
Marcus Mumford is no rock singer and mercifully doesn’t try to be. His vocals have always been more suited to the tremulous ballad portions of his songs, tugging politely at the emotions like Chris Martin. Cold Arms fulfils that brief here.
But, while the overall feel is pleasant, the songs are as innocuous as ever. Only brooding folk rock number Broad-Shouldered Beasts holds intrigue and even then simply because it betrays Mumford & Sons’ roots as Laura Marling’s backing band. Coincidentally, Marling has recently undertaken her own electric odyssey with considerably more dexterity and sophistication than her former bandmates. Next to her, Mumford & Sons sound like journeymen, content to make a mild incursion into Coldplay territory. FIONA SHEPHERD
Django Django: Born Under Saturn
Django Django’s debut album was a delightful exercise in experimental pop – the only real difference this time round is that the boffin quartet now know that their playful patchwork of surf, rockabilly, psychedelia and electronica are widely loved. Born Under Saturn is marginally more hi-fi but every bit as imaginative and engaging as their debut, and the songwriting – from the playful prog of Giant, through the hypnotic acid rhythm’n’blues of Found You and blissed-out electro pop of First Light to ebullient house track Reflections – even that bit more beguiling, with lashings of spaced out choirboy vocals and the ever-present influence of pop’s space cadet Syd Barrett to feast on afresh. FS
Rozi Plain: Friend
There surely cannot be an ache which Rozi Plain’s stress-busting music wouldn’t kiss better. Her third album makes for graceful, placid, low-key easy listening, offering nothing to set the pulse racing, just subtle shifts in temperament and arrangement from the soothing synthesized Afrobeat backing of Friend City to the muted woodwind on Yard and Rozi’s gossamer voice wisping forth like a folky Björk or a more horizontal Laura Marling. It is no wonder that she has found kindred spirits in her special guests, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor and former labelmates Francois & the Atlas Mountains, two more artistes with a natural healing balm to their sound. FIONA SHEPHERD
Ralph Vaughan Williams & James MacMillan: Oboe Concertos
On this disc of delightfully summery music, the emphasis is initially on the pastoral: the airborne lyricism of Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto, its liquid lyricism shaped with velvet perfection by soloist Nicholas Daniel and the Britten Sinfonia; and equally in James MacMillan’s One for chamber orchestra, a simple short work with echoes of Vaughan Williams, but whose notational inflexions give a magical Scottish bent to the musical language. MacMillan’s own Oboe Concerto introduces a feistier mood, its nimble virtuosity playfully executed by the same soloist.
There’s mischief, too, in Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes. KEN WALTON
TIM DALLING: EVE’S BONIE SQUAD
Ayr-born, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne-based Tim Dalling is best known as the kilted, accordion playing buffoon in the New Rope String Band. Here, accompanied by guitarist Ian Carr and bassist Neil Harland, he reveals his other side as a hugely open-hearted – if at times wildly idiosyncratic – singer-songwriter.
Material veers between the warm simplicity of Where I Want to Be, with its shades of Randy Newman, to the melodrama of Poisoned Hand, the quite bizarre Latino Hey Burro and the work-song holler of Shy Bairns.
In more solemn mode, Dalling declaims his setting of the Chartist Ernest Jones’s Song of the Lower Classes with power and clarity. Other poem settings include Julia Darling’s Two Lighthouses, which, to my mind, doesn’t transpose quite so comfortably.
The songs that really stay, however, are Mr Michael Marra, a jaunty yet heartfelt tribute to the late sage of Dundee, and the title track’s delightful celebration of Dalling’s forebears, a sing-along family tree that positively bursts with ongoing life and human affection. JIM GILCHRIST
Snarky Puppy & Metropole Orkest: Sylva
The rise of Snarky Puppy to world domination seems increasingly unstoppable, and this disc marks two new departures for the iconoclastic New York-based outfit – their major label debut and a collaboration with an orchestra, the equally eclectic Metropole Orkest from Holland.
To celebrate the significance of the occasion, Michael League wrote a new suite of music based on a resonant, multi-dimensional idea of the forest in both reality and imagination, augmented by Miraphora Mina’s artwork. League and his fellow musicians in both ensembles successfully avoid the familiar jazz-with-strings stereotype in a creative fusion of the band’s trademark lyrical, rhythmic and instrumental resources with the depth and range of the Metropole’s orchestral colour and expanded bottom-end textures.
Snarky are their usual ebullient, funky selves, and the orchestral players respond to the band’s cinematic groove as if born to it. KENNY MATHIESON