In Brief: The Lumineers are the current “it” band in the folk revival genre, but the songs that made them popular don’t really emphasize their few strengths.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel or doing anything that different, the songs are super simple. The ideas themselves are very simple ideas. Anyone who can play an instrument can play a Lumineers song.”
The above quote from Jeremiah Fraites, drummer and co-founder of The Lumineers, really gave me a bad first impression of the band. I suppose it’s my own fault for hitting up Wikipedia to read about them before I’d actually heard a note of their music – often it’s best to let the songs speak for themselves. At the time, they were due to make an appearance on Saturday Night Live, and I had just Googled them to find out who the heck they were, the same way I would when any other celebrity/musician is announced to appear on that show and I have no idea who they are. If my first impression had been based on appearances rather than a potentially out-of-context quote, it would probably have been a positive one. The band is the latest in a long line of “folk revival” acts that have been bringing the warm glow of acoustic instruments, played lovingly with an optional side of light twang, to the fringes of the mainstream. And their configuration, four guys who play multiple instrumental roles plus a female cellist and backing vocalist, brings to mind another favorite band of mine who I had also originally misjudged due to a bad first impression: Arcade Fire. My curiosity would have been theirs to lose, rather than theirs to win. But I did my best to keep an open mind – I tend to prefer complexity to simplicity when it comes to music, but I know that sometimes the most memorable hit songs can be born out of almost stupidly simple ideas and chord progressions. Since I’m oblivious to what’s on the radio these days, and I hadn’t watched whatever hit dramas their songs had been featured in, their live performances of “Ho Hey” and “Stubborn Love” on SNL were my first time hearing their first two singles. Unimpressed, I decided to check out their album anyway, figuring that even some of my favorite bands tend to sound subpar on live television. But as it turns out, those performances were pretty true to the arrangements and the spirit of both songs, and neither song struck me as particularly memorable. I could see on the surface how either one could strike someone as catchy, and maybe even stand out as a different flavor in the nascent collection of an eager music fan just getting into folk or indie music for the first time. But the band’s intentional lack of a twist on the genre, or failing that, a knack for arrangement or instrumental skill or vocal prowess or something that hinted at artistic depth beyond the simple surface, really kept me at a distance. And so I became the outsider looking in, understanding how folks could be affable to their music, but not really getting how they could have gotten that popular that quickly.
Of course, there’s more to any band than just their singles. And throughout The Lumineers’ self-titled debut, there is a bit of sonic diversity: Some rock influence here, a little bit of Celtic flair there, a few throwbacks to simpler times over there, and a handful of intimate songs that sound like lead singer Wesley Schultz briefly went solo. Dismissing the entirety of it as “simple” would be a really poor underestimation of the band, because there is some complexity in the arrangements. The band doesn’t intentionally shun complexity, nor do they make music as some sort of a pretentious response to other bands whose complexity they dislike. I’m guessing a big part of the charm for some folks is that they don’t ever seem to overthink it. If a song can say what it needs to with just an acoustic guitar and a few voices, then they don’t go adding a bridge section or a ton of instrumental layers, but they don’t mind going for a bigger arrangement if it fits the mood of the song. In theory, this is a good approach, since a number of bands that I may personally enjoy for their detailed arrangements seem to get slagged by the critics rather often for songs that are perceived as being overwrought or overproduced. I can’t see The Lumineers ever getting those accusations leveled against them. But because of that, it’s often hard for me to get excited about songs that seem like they’re par for the course and not much more. Only a few of these tracks get to the point of being truly tedious, but it also seems like the few truly interesting songs struggle to rise above the mostly average ones scattered throughout the disc. A great number of them are based on musical starting points that I think are great ideas, but then fail to develop beyond those ideas into something that sustains interest for the entire length of the song. I can understand the band’s aversion to overdoing it, but when you look at their roster and see that they have within their ranks the capability to play instruments like the mandolin, cello, and accordion, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wish that these instruments were sometimes more prominent. When they are, that’s often where the magic seems to happen.
The songwriting on this album also gets a bit of a “meh” response from me, because while I can see the influence from a lot of classic rockers and folk singers, I often don’t feel like Schultz and Fraites have a whole lot to add to the conversation. Occasionally they’ll fill a song out with these interesting, historical sorts of details that can really add personality to it, but at other times, despite an interesting turn of phrase here and there, the band writes rather generic songs of love and loss that bank on a vaguely folksy personality to cover for the well-worn paths being traveled. You could probably say the same about other bands in the same genre that I happen to enjoy, most notably Mumford & Sons, but their appeal lies in more of an energetic and dramatic performance style that lends itself really well to live shows. And then you have your really good songwriters like Josh Ritter, who can impress me with their wordsmithing talents even when the arrangement is bare-bones and designed to mostly stay out of the way. If an artist can’t excel in either area, only mustering passable accomplishments here and there, then the results are going to be far less consistent. What’s really frustrating about The Lumineers is that I know they’re capable of more than this, due to the occasional song that seems to have more of a detailed story behind it, or at least an arrangement that sparks some curiosity. There are a few oddball rhythms and tricky guitar parts on this album that contradict Fraites’ quote from above, because I guarantee you I would not be able to play them. So if you’re like me and your reaction to “Ho Hey” was one of pure indifference, then you can at least find some solace in knowing that not everything on this album will be picked up and played by street buskers or by that one guy who always has to start a sing-along at every campfire and/or college dorm common area. That’s my roundabout way of saying that a group made up of more than just entry-level musicians really shouldn’t sell themselves short as such. They have more talent than that, and I figure they just need to get a few more albums into their career before they figure out better ways to showcase that talent.
1. Flowers in Your Hair
The album begins with a brief, rambling acoustic track, which sounds almost like a demo for the first verse or so, until the rest of the band joins in with the brisk pace of Wesley’s finger-picking. I like his nimble-fingered approach – he’s already violated the “anyone can play this” rule mere seconds into the song, though I must say that what the rest of the band contributes on rhythm guitar, percussion, and cello is rather basic. The lyrics here are some of the better ones on the album. Nothing too complex in terms of subject matter, as a man looks back on the innocent nostalgia of his younger days and sort of shakes his head at it, but there are some witty observations such as “It’s a long road to wisdom, but it’s a short one to being ignored” that help to offset the banal chorus of “Be in my eyes/Be in my heart” and a truly painful rhyme in the second verse: “So now I think that I could love you back/And I hope it’s not too late cause you’re at-TRAC-tive”. Yikes. I’d be willing to let that stuff slide in this case, since I enjoy the song on musical level, but just when I’m getting into it, it stops dead at the two minute mark and we’re on to something new. The song gets mercilessly aborted before it has a chance to complete its thought.
2. Classy Girls
The second track is proof that while the Lumineers are capable of diversity and even a little playfulness, they’re total crap when it comes to pacing. A quirky little bar tune like this, with its indiscernible chatter and beer mugs clinking about in the background, and the mandolin and piano very slowly picking up speed, isn’t the type of thing that belongs at track two. it’s the sort of thing that makes more sense to put deeper in an album once we’ve gotten used to a band’s core sound. That said, the position of the song on the album doesn’t make the song a bad one in and of itself – in fact, it’s one of the band’s best offerings. I have to chuckle at the story of a hapless man who attempts to hit on a well-traveled and well-to-do woman whom she spots from across the room in one of his favorite nighttime haunts – she’s game for conversation, but she quickly rebuffs his advances, and gives him a much-needed pointer: “Classy girls don’t kiss in bars, you fool.” I love how one of the other band members pipes up in the background at this point: “No, they don’t!” – the entire song has the sort of ambiance that makes you believe it was actually recorded in a bar, rather than a sterile studio environment, and the fact that it wins me over despite its inherent messiness says a lot about the character of the song. Of course, the big thing that draws me in is how it turns from minimalistic ballad to smartly arranged up-tempo folk/rock, hand claps and cello and mandolin all chiming away like you might expect from an unplugged Arcade Fire. It’s not perfect, but it easily lands in the album’s top three due to a shortage of great material throughout most of it.
This jaunty, piano-driven song showcases the band at their percussive best, drums punctuating the urgent piano chords and giving the entire thing an offbeat, military march sort of quality. Despite the tense, rigid rhythm, the band capably shifts between different time signatures and adds a spirit of fun to the song with excited, shouting background vocals. All of this seems rather fun given that the song is about a man spotting enemy submarines on the horizon (Japanese, so I guess it’s set during World War II?) and trying to warn residents of a seaside town, only to be laughed off as if he were just a drunken boy crying wolf. The song’s a bit too short to come to a fully satisfying climax (we’re three tracks in and nothing has broken the three-minute mark yet), but Wesley’s final observation is a perfect little slide of tragicomedy: “In the end it boils down to credibility/I had none, so I will die with the secrets of the sea.”
4. Dead Sea
We get into something a little longer and meatier here – the album’s first ballad stretches out to what almost seems like a luxurious four minutes, allowing more time for the band to fully flesh out a story. Unfortunately this is our first time hearing the band play second fiddle to Wesley in more of a “solo mode” – there’s still percussion and cello and so forth to back up his simple “four chords and the truth” approach, but the movement of the song feels a bit turgid and tired despite it having some halfway decent lyrics. basically it boils down to a man leaving the comforts of home and wandering the Earth unanchored, running across a woman with a similar lack of attachment, and finding that they give each other’s lives enough meaning to keep each other afloat. That’s essentially the metaphor that the entire song rests on – being “like the Dead Sea” isn’t the despairing observation you might initially make it out to be, because if you know anything about that infamously salty body of water, you’re well aware that it takes no effort whatsoever to stay afloat in it. It’s reasonably witty, but then the rest of the song feels like a detached and uneventful travelogue without much of anything else to say.
5. Ho Hey
So along comes that big hit song that I’m sure you’ve already heard if you’re gonna bother checking this album out. It’s the kind of thing that’s brief, up-beat, melodic, and slick enough that you could easily slip it in there as part of a mix of vaguely cheery indie folk songs and it would be pleasurable and agreeable as part of the overall atmosphere. But stick it in between two momentum-killing ballads, as it is on this inexplicably sequenced record, and it feels like it’s been left hanging. To discuss the actual song for anyone who hasn’t yet been beaten into submission by its alluring mandolin and guitar strums and its omnipresent shouts, it’s exactly what you would expect to get if you took a group of people who had just learned how to play the most basic chord progressions on their respective instruments, and who had decided to cry out “Ho!” and “Hey!” to keep the beat throughout the entire thing in lieu of actual lyrics. Sure, there are actual lyrics here, and you’ll probably pick up the chorus of “I belong with you, you belong with me, you’re my sweetheart” and start singing along in a distressingly short amount of time. But the song is so clearly in love with its hook that lyrics are secondary – and looking closer at them reveals absolutely nothing deeper than exactly what you’d assume from the chorus – that the pretty girl he wrote the world’s most simplistic song for should dump the loser she’s with and get with a sensitive man who can write her a song instead. I’ll admit that this one gets stuck in my head, but it does so in the clumsiest way possible, with those jarring shouts hitting on every count of 1 and 3, like my Music 101 professor told me in college that only the most uneducated and unsophisticated of musicians would still do in this day and age. (I then went home the following weekend and discovered everyone in my church doing exactly that.) It’s really disheartening once we’ve had a few of their other songs to demonstrate that this band actually does have a knack for syncopation and complex rhythms when they decide to put some actual effort into it. And all of the above doesn’t even address the most jarring aspect of the song, which for me is when the first chorus gets abruptly cut off by the shouts, so that it sounds like the lyrics are saying “You’re my sweet HO!!!” Hey, at least I got some unintentional humor out of this one.
6. Slow It Down
Well, they’re certainly not trying to fool anyone with this song title. It’s over five minutes of Wesley, mostly sitting in a lonely room strumming on his electric guitar, almost immediately biasing me against the song due to the slow and dull way that the instrument is being played. Acoustic just plain sounds better in this mode, in my opinion. Electric doesn’t make much sense for a folk band, and I’m not one of those purists who thinks they can’t make it work, but the choice here is inexplicable since absolutely nothing interesting with it. Wesley sounds whiny and off-key here, and the song just lingers like stagnant water before the pace only slightly picks up in its second half. There might be a second guitar strumming dryly in the background, but aside from that, the rest of the band is nowhere to be found. There’s some sort of breakup story going on here, something about a guy getting left by a disreputable woman who just wants to run with the bad boys, or whatever. I’m so bored to tears by the song that I honestly don’t care.
7. Stubborn Love
Another fairly basic, poppy folk song is up next, predictably the album’s second single, though to give the band some credit, they’re a little better at starting small and building up momentum in a satisfying way on this one. The cello’s a little more prominent here, as are the background vocals, so initially this feels like a bright spot indicating hope of a comeback in the album’s second half, after a rather disappointing slew of tracks that had wrapped up the front side. The problem with this one is that despite the sweet melody and the compelling four-on-the-floor rhythm, they play the song’s main hook (“Keep your HEEEEEEEAD up/Keep your LOOOOOOOOVE”) a bit too subtle, not really building it to the sort of climax it deserves when it returns as a full-band, sing-along sort of moment. The result is a vaguely memorable song that ultimately comes across as too anemic to really take ownership of the emotional weight that it hopes to carry.
8. Big Parade
Now this is more like it. An instantly likeable hook – the kind of thing you can sing and clap your hands along to – gives way to another ballad-turned-anthem that knows how to build up its momentum smartly while keeping its lyrics and its rhythm unpredictable. I still haven’t worked out the time signature used in the chorus, despite how darn catchy it is, and they shift from that offbeat pattern into simple 4/4 and back again so naturally that the song never seems to get tripped up by its own quirkiness. Jeremiah Fraites is at his best on the drums here, knowing when to change from militant snares to the fun, simple thump of the bass drum, and when to drop out entirely and let vocals and handclaps drive the song. Neyla Pekarek‘s cello, mostly a background instrument throughout the album, really shines on this one, not doing anything fancy, but weaving beautifully in between the unusual rhythms of the song. The title is apt, as there are a bevy of characters that come marching down the street in this song, all broken and uncertain, bookies and mobsters and politicians and even a Catholic priest struggling with his feelings for a forbidden woman, and the chorus even adjusts its lyrics so that the band can return to the song’s ingenious hook without interrupting the story. At five and a half minutes, this is the album’s longest song, and it’s an ideal example of what this band can do when they really let the creative juices flow and resist their all-too-frequent urge to shut that process down prematurely.
9. Charlie Boy
I’m gonna go ahead and call this one the immediate standout among the album’s softer songs. The delicate, peaceful mandolin melody immediately whisks away to a place with lush green hills, and it’s only when Wesley starts singing that we realize this beautiful place is probably a cemetery, since the song is a heartfelt eulogy for a young man who went off to war to make his mama proud, and who didn’t come back. A reference to his birth in ’44 and fighting for President Kennedy once again reminds us that many of the songs on this album are not necessarily set in the present day. But there’s no cynicism, no overt political commentary being made here. Here the band is as reverent and tear-jerking as the Dixie Chicks were when they sang “Travelin’ Soldier”. The mandolin and cello melt together perfectly, and while there’s a bit of momentum lost due to nothing else joining them as the song progresses… plus the ending kind of trails off rather than coming to a resolved point of peace and rest. So once again, not a perfect song, but definitely one that showcases a direction I wouldn’t mind hearing the band explore more in the future.
10. Flapper Girl
This time around, the nostalgia for decades past doesn’t work out so well for the band. The piano melody driving this song hints at a bit of playfulness, but it’s played way too calmly, sort of half-assing itself into a lackadaisical anthem, but not really bringing out any of the musical character of the 1920s lifestyle being described. Just throwing out historical references to Flappers and Prohibition and stuff doesn’t cut it, guys. The entire song’s really just beginning for the attention of a lady because gee, a guy was nice enough to write her a song. And we already went through an entire track’s worth of that banality in “Ho Hey”, so I’m really not up for it here, where it’s decidedly less catchy.
11. Morning Song
We end with another slow, and tedious ballad – one which temporarily tricks us into thinking its a slow-burning rocker with its slightly bluesy electric guitar intro, but which then predictably retreats back to starkly played acoustic guitar chords, so what we ultimately end up with is another Wesley Schultz solo number in disguise, with the rest of the bind chiming in sleepily and clumsily between his verses. The story being told, despite his best attempts to describe the details of a sad morning when his lover chooses to leave him, ultimately leads down a predictable and depressing path, as he can’t get over thoughts of this woman starting a life with another guy, settling down and having a family and so forth. You’d never know it from the lethargic performance, but these thoughts ultimately drive the song’s protagonist to suicide, as he cuts the brakes on his own car and hopes his death will send her some sort of a message. A tragic ending like this deserves something a bit more jarring, a bit more heartstring-tugging, or really a bit more begging us to feel any emotion, than the half-hearted attempt at a climax that we get from the kinda-sorta-rough vocals and the dried-out, unimaginative blues-rock cliches as this one dies down. Really, this band should ditch the electric guitar completely on their next release – it’s only an effective weapon in the hands of someone who actually knows how to wield it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Flowers in Your Hair $0.75
Classy Girls $1.25
Dead Sea $.50
Ho Hey $.50
Slow It Down -$.50
Stubborn Love $.75
Big Parade $1.75
Charlie Boy $1.25
Flapper Girl $0
Morning Song -$.50
Wesley Schultz: Lead vocals, guitar, piano
Jeremiah Fraites: Drums, percussion, mandolin, backing vocals
Neyla Pekarek: Cello, backing vocals
Stelth Ulvang: Piano, mandolin, accordion, guitar, backing vocals
Ben Wahamaki: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.