- YES, I haven't blogged in something like 6 months
- That is because I bought a house and am trying to move and work and live and also prepare for house concerts
- I am only blogging right now because I have procrastinated for SO long on this and I'm actually trapped in my office and can't leave so why the heck not
- It's been 9? 10? months since I saw the Avett Brothers and I've been listening to them almost non-stop. I need to stop. I need to come up for air. But I can't.
SO. Here we go. Hipsters, bluegrass fans, Mumford fans, Avett fans, bear with me, if you will, and please read the whole thing before you start sending me hate mail. :) :)
I don't like Mumford and Sons any more. I did for a while. They brought the nu-folk scene to the big market with Sigh No More (which I own! And I liked it!). This has paved the way (somewhat fortunately and somewhat unfortunately) for a lot of sound-alike look-alike type bands.
They made banjo cool again! Boys started wearing vests and leather boots again! That bassist has a great beard! They started that cool Railroad Revival thing!
Then Babel rolled around, and I listened to it confusedly, because I thought these were surely just tracks they didn't have room for on Sigh No More. All the same key, same tempo, same song structure (dum dum dum dum dum, DUM DUM DUM HAR HAR HAR BANJO BANJO BANJO HAAAAAAARRRRRR dum dum dum), same existential-y millenialesque post-modern kind of lyrics. Don't get me wrong. They seem like nice guys, Tumblr loves them, how could we go wrong here?
And then I read an interview, in which one of them said in so many words, "we've been so busy touring there's no time to write new material, and so we've been playing the same setlist for about 5 years". That's when I realized I was done with Mumford and Sons, for now, because to me, that's a sign of failure.
To my way of thinking, they're in the driver's seat. They have the ULTIMATE platform (big dollars) from which to say, we're going to take some time off and WRITE NEW MATERIAL, or, we're going to concentrate on some really great collaborations or do some producer work, or heck, live a little, put a few years under those big ironic belt buckles. They NEED to do that. And I understand why they wouldn't want to, after all, they're living the dream. Maybe it just takes years to know when you have to step back from the success and re-evaluate.
(To a certain extent we can only write about what we know, and the more heartbreak you have as a human, the better your songwriting gets. You need material! And the only way to get that is by living! Some people pick it up faster than others, Dylan springs to mind first. But that's the exception. The rest of us have to put those 10,000 hours in. I'm trying to not make all my hours the same.)
Around this same time, I decided I was going to be a lifelong Avett fan.
It's funny, because Babel and The Carpenter came out around the same time. Both albums were received with great amounts of lukewarmness by the music community, by the roots and folk bloggers, blah blah blah. And I listened to both of them. Both artists said "look, this is where we're at".
Coming from the Avetts, I get that. You listen to their early stuff, it's raucous, it's a blaze of moonshine and whatever kind of drugs people in NC do and lust and driving too fast too late at night. The music contains all of that.
And you listen to the Carpenter, and it's about kids and people dying and hanging on and life and family... and I think, okay, maybe this is not what I want to listen to all the time, but it's real, and it's a natural progression of things - they're aging, their songwriting is maturing, and the next album is going to be different, because this one is different than the last one. And I will stick around to hear it.
(And I'm not meaning this to sound like they're old. That was one of the most energetic live shows I have ever had the chance to see. Nothing fancy, no fancy light show, no fireworks, no tricks, no gimmicks - just MUSIC. They have as much energy and chaos as anyone could ask for.)
Meanwhile, back on planet Mumford: HAR HAR HAR HAR YOU CAN'T TELL BECAUSE WE'RE SINGING SO LOUD BUT THIS IS SIGH NO MORE VERSION 1.2
This is where you're at? The same place you were 5 years ago? Okay, sure, that's their prerogative... but I don't really like it.
On a side note:
It's not their fault that their banjo player, who is after all just having fun messing about, spawned a bazillion VERY inappropriate uses of banjo in pop country music (sorry! but that had to be said), because all of a sudden people discovered they like banjo*.
It's not their fault that Nashville is soon going to implode under the weight of its own pomposity and faux-folk earnestness.
It's not their fault that most of the bands who are following in their footsteps really suck (and that I really, REALLY hate the Lumineers).
I do think it's their fault that their second album sounded like a carbon copy of the first.
I do think it's their fault that their set list hasn't changed in 5 years.
Nice guys can still make mediocre music and be really famous for it. I'm not holding their success against them. I'm saying, if you can, why not step your game up a little?
*I love banjo. I happen to like 5-string (it sounds like bells!) but I am learning to appreciate good clawhammer. If you had told me like 7 years ago that I was going to be really into folk, roots and banjo, I would have said, what's banjo sound like? And that's why we have to be nice to each other, even though most of the time I don't feel like bothering.
I don't want you to stop listening to Mumford (well, maybe a little) - I want you to treat them like what they are, which is a GATEWAY band, a gateway to better things. Mine was Nickel Creek. I am unashamed, because it led me to so much more.
You like banjo? You like men with beards? You like music about being folky and living like a hobo or a hobbit? DIG A LITTLE DEEPER, darlins. There is more out there.
There is John Hartford. There is The Band. There is John Prine. There is Avett Brothers.. There is Punch Brothers. There is Charlie Parr and Harry Manx. There is Old Crow Medicine show, and Devil Makes Three, and the Deadly Gentlemen, and Crooked Still, and Infamous Stringdusters. I haven't gotten into the wilder side of things but if you really want some crazy banjo, you might want to look up Trampled By Turtles, or some old guy called Earl Scruggs.
These people, they change their set lists. They may have an album here or there that would qualify as a dud, but since that's not the final word, they probably don't care, and neither should we.
They tour a lot. Some of them make a lot of money, some of them not so much (heck, some of them are dead).
But all of them are characterized by growth, by refusal to stagnate. That hurts sometimes. You know that from your own life.
What I took away from that one solitary Avett Brothers show was that if you do what you love and you write about what you know, that shows. When you put in those 10,000 hours or those 15-20 years of touring, it shows. There are some things you can't fake, and maturity and experience are among them.
We have to set the bar high, and we have to reward the musicians who are at that level, and we have to stop listening to pop radio, and maybe it will go away?
We have to stop downloading our music, and instead, export our bodies to a room or a field with other peoples' bodies and be there, listening, together. It will probably get weird and sweaty, but music is meant to be for community, and most communities ARE weird and sweaty.
We have to stop fussing so much about how our bands look, and whether or not they have drums, and "THIS ISN'T REAL BLUEGRASS" and concentrate a heck of a lot more on how they actually sound and what they are writing about. And at the end of the day, the music can speak for itself.