Babel, the second release by the English folk quartet Mumford and Sons, is in its third week atop the Billboard Album chart. This surely makes their parents and accountants happy, but the fact that such luminaries as Matchbox Twenty, Linkin Park and the Zac Brown Band have recently held this spot demonstrates the diminished luster of this title. In an era of singles, playlists and short attention spans, the album is becoming a marginalized format. However, to sell more of them than anyone in the country is not insignificant, and for the week ending October 20, Mumford and Sons accomplished this.
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The band also recently appeared on Saturday Night Live, has been at or near the top of the bill at several prominent summer festivals and has regularly sold out shows across the country over the last couple years, including at the Pageant in June 2011. If Mumford and Sons were any hotter, Starbucks would sell them in liquid form. It seems like something more is brewing with this band, that it is developing a following of enthusiastic devotees that in time could blossom into a Phish-type entourage.
But does the music carpet match the hype drapes? I have listened to Babel several times and it is fine -- at times even good. Mumford and Sons play with great passion and intensity, and tell stories based on universal themes such as love and longing, faith and religion and the struggles and challenges of life. However, lead singer Marcus Mumford's growling half talking/half screaming/half singing grates on the listener's ears after several songs.
The band also falls into a repetitive structure of a tepid, contemplative opening slowly building to a rollicking crescendo of any stringed instruments it has on hand at the time. It starts to seem like you heard the same song several times when you play the album in its entirety. Folk or folk-rock doesn't typically fare well in the pop-dominated charts. Outside of the surprise success of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack a decade ago, I would wager that the last time albums where the banjo is so prominent sold this well featured either John Denver or Kermit the Frog. So, what is it about Mumford and Sons that resonates with so many? I can offer up a few theories: The Name: Let's face it, "Mumford and Sons" is a kick-ass name for a band. It's tight, has only four syllables and is clever (those three guys who look about the same age as lead singer Marcus Mumford aren't really his sons, you know.) Now, if their music was terrible, the coolest name in the world wouldn't move many units. Still, the name of a product is important. If you don't believe me, ask someone in Mexico who ever tried to sell a Chevrolet Nova. Would "Marcus and the Vestaculars" or "Banjostank" sell as well? Doubtful. Conversely, I wonder if ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, a quality band with possibly the most unwieldy name ever would have fared better with a pithier moniker.
The Appearance: Mumford and Sons' members play up thier old-timey Depression-era image with their attire. Only Wal-Mart workers and traffic cops are more likely to show up for work wearing a vest, and everything else in their wardrobes - suspenders, corduroy, hats, ascots, blazers, large belt buckles, etc. - looks to be purchased from a vintage clothier or haberdashery (I've always wanted to use that word in a column). It's hardly four teenagers dancing in unison wearing matching studded jean jackets, but it is a gimmick and gimmicks sell records. Plus, as I have been told by many a female music fan and cannot argue against, Marcus Mumford is a handsome, handsome man. That doesn't hurt either.
The Cool Factor: I don't have the sales demographics in front of me in a nice USA Today-style pie chart, but the smart money says that a great majority of Mumford and Sons' sales are to people aged 30 and up. As someone residing comfortably within that age group, I can tell you that most of my peers have difficulty staying even moderately current in the music scene. So, those attempting to maintain a connection to alternative music (or what they believe to be alternative music) often collectively gravitate toward something they can all agree on - something that sounds pretty good and isn't a particularly challenging listen.
Just as the Dave Matthews Band fit that description for years, Mumford and Sons does today. It's music made by four genial-seeming English blokes that clearly have talent. It may not be innovative or of superior quality, but it is not Justin Bieber nor is it Jason Mraz, which is to say it is neither overproduced, manufactured teen-pop schlock nor music dentists order in bulk like Novocain. So being a fan of Mumford and Sons is safe and socially acceptable. Think of it like shopping at the Gap - it is fine and nobody will make fun of you for it, but there are many better stores out there, and they probably aren't at the mall.
Follow Dave Geeting on Twitter @thegeeter.