Artist: Mumford & Sons
Album: Johannesburg EP
In Brief: Surprisingly strong, given the unlikely collaboration between an English “folk” band and three stylistically divergent African artists. I still think Mumford & Sons are poseurs of a sort, wandering the world in search of a sound they can actually master, but this EP at least proves that they’re excellent collaborators.
I’m just gonna come out and admit it: I was wrong about this one. Sometimes a band disappoints you so much with one record that it unfairly colors your initial impressions of the next one. And that’s definitely true for Mumford & Sons, an English band that won me over with their spirited (if somewhat derivative) take on Americana before ditching the sound entirely and replacing it with rather bland pop/rock on their third album, the much-ballyhooed Wilder Mind, just over a year ago. Wilder Mind seemed like such a calculated move away from a “folk revival” sound that was starting to go out of style, that it actually had me questioning whether their hearts were ever fully in that style to begin with, or if they were just riding a trend back when Sigh No More first earned them acclaim in 2009. We only got two albums of that sound – with me coming on board when 2012’s Babel came out – before they abruptly changed gears. But what’s done is done. Mumford & Sons will probably never return to that sound full-time, and I really don’t think I want them to. I wasn’t expecting much from this band any more, so when they dropped the Johannesburg EP this summer, and it turned out to be a collaboration with several artists they were touring with in South Africa, I was skeptical, to say the least. “Here they go, thoughtlessly dropping their tired middle-of-the-road song templates into another culture’s music”, was my first impression. And there might still be a few spots within these five new songs where the mix still feels a bit like oil and water to my ears. But for the most part, I actually ended up enjoying this one way more than I thought I would upon first listen.
The collaborating artists on this EP are as follows: Senegalese singer/songwriter Baaba Maal, South African indie pop band Beatenberg, and the Malawian/British duo The Very Best, who apparently throw a little bit of everything from dance-pop to jazz fusion to traditional African sounds into their music. It’s worth noting that all of these artists come from very different parts of Africa and each one taken alone would give an outsider like me a very different impression of what “African music” in the modern age is supposed to sound like. I think that diversity actually works to this EP’s advantage, since you have artists who were already mixing traditional and modern music before Mumford & Sons came along and said, “Hey, we should write some songs together”, and thus there doesn’t need to be any pretense of allegiance to a single genre. At any time, the people in the studio could be mixing together traditional percussion with modern drum programming and electronically tweaking the vocals, or handing off the mic to the point where three separate languages might be heard all on the same track. (Not literally. I’m sure they recorded those vocal parts at separate times. Just saying that’s the effect I get from it.) You could argue that artists ranging from Paul Simon to anyone who’s ever thrown a Ladysmith Black Mambazo chant onto one of their tracks have done this before. You could also argue that this approach makes Mumford & Sons the supporting act on their own record, but I actually appreciate their willingness to shift the spotlight away from themselves on most of these tracks. Instead of the usual “Western band incorporates ‘world music’ sounds into pop music to make it more palatable”, it’s really the other way around – the varied sounds brought to the table by their collaborators elevate the straight-ahead Mumford & Sons sound far above what it would otherwise be.
I suppose my only real complaint about this EP, aside from the few moments where the handing off of lead vocals back to Marcus Mumford actually feels like an unwelcome shift in the middle of a song, is that they only had two days to bang the whole thing out due to everyone’s schedules, and thus it couldn’t be a full-fledged album. That may actually be praise disguised as a complaint. I could easily listen to twelve tracks of this, and I’m pretty sure I was bored to tears with Wilder Mind by the time track five rolled around, and dreading the seven still left to go. (I’m not really in the mood to go back and fact-check myself on that one, honestly.) Realistically, I accept that this can’t be the template for future Mumford & Sons recordings, since capturing that lightning in a bottle isn’t the sort of thing that would likely work out even if they could get all of the same people in the same room again, and I’m not sure I want the band to start deliberately seeking out international collaborators for future albums – they eventually need to find a way to stand on their own, making a sound that they’re truly confident making instead of “just visiting”. Still, these five songs are a special thing that happened in a recording session that could well have been a train wreck, so I applaud it for the bright spot in their discography that it turned out to be.
1. There Will Be Time
Due to my initial cynicism about this EP, I expected from the opening verse of its lead single that it was going to be little more than a piano ballad with some African elements superficially overlaid – a few hand drums for dramatic emphasis, bits and pieces of Baaba Maal singing in his native language that didn’t feel connected to the rest of the song, etc. You know, the kind of thing a band can do when called upon to contribute to a movie soundtrack and they don’t want to push the envelope too much on its radio potential. Turns out that was a harsh judgment – as the song begins to open up midway through, it becomes quite clear that both artists are passionately committed to making their collaboration memorable, and as they start to lay down more rapid-fire percussion and the bass really starts booming, it’s clear that they were understating the song’s refrain at first so that it would stand out more once the song got going. The lyrics may seem like typical “dogged nice guy at the end of his rope” fare like you’d hear on any other Mumford record: “And in the cold light I love to love and adore you/It’s all that I have, it’s all that I have”. But mix those in with the climactic English verse that Maal contributes, which seems to paraphrase the famous “To everything, there is a season” section from the book of Ecclesiastes, and somehow the whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts. This must have been a stellar highlight at the handful of live shows where they were able to perform it together.
Beatenberg and The Very Best show up for the first time on this track – it’s the only one all four artists appear on together. The syncopated indie pop vibe that Beatenberg brings to the table reminds me very much of the Vampire Weekend song “White Sky”, which isn’t surprising since Vampire Weekend owes a good chunk of their sound to traditional West African music. They bring some rather intriguing lyrics to the table as well: “You don’t wanna suffer for your art/You don’t wanna vivisect your heart.” I mean, when’s the last time you heard the word “vivisect” in a song? (Unless you listen to death metal or something, I guess.) When they hand off to Mumford & Sons for the pre-chorus, the rhythm shifts slightly, and the build-up feels a lot like the desperation heard in a song of theirs such as “Hopeless Wanderer”. But just when things are on the verge of getting predictable, they drop us into a second verse where Babba Maal gets to chant for a bit before Beatenberg takes over again, and when the chorus finally shows up, it’s either him or The Very Best, possibly both artists together singing in one of their native languages, with Mumford only coming back in to offer an English counterpoint in the final chorus. Despite not understanding a word of the non-English stuff, it might just be the catchiest chorus on the album, and I like how light-hearted and joyous it seems in contrast to the intense build-up that led the way there. This is just a solid pop song all around, albeit an unconventional one.
3. Fool You’ve Landed
Speaking of straight-ahead pop songs, this might be the most laid-back thing on the entire EP – it’s still upbeat, but more easygoing, less intense in the vocal department. That doesn’t mean it’s not well-performed. This being the only track not to feature Baaba Maal, I have to assume that half of each verse is being sung by The Very Best in Chichewa – I don’t have a translation available, but I think it’s interesting how they switch to English mid-verse and drop lines like “Downtown head and high rise eyes/So naive to how the skyline lies”. There are fun little bits of poetry in the English lyrics, and I can only assume the same about the ones in each artist’s native tongue as well. When it comes to the chorus and the overall feel of the song, I can only assume Beatenberg is the main artist steering the sheep, due to the simpler toe-tapping beat, the little nervous guitar arpeggios (which once again are rather Vampire Weekend-esque), and the somewhat self-effacing lyrics about a man being no good as a lover because he can’t settle down and commit. I can quite clearly hear Mumford singing along, adding his usual gravelly weight to the chorus, but it’s a nice departure from their usual so-earnest-it-hurts lovelorn approach – an aspect of their music that I tend to enjoy only in smaller doses.
Baaba Maal and The Very Best were most definitely at the helm on this song, in which the main hook/chant is in Chichewa and one verse/bridge is in Pulaar, leaving Marcus Mumford as the connecting tissue with an English pre-chorus that seems to be an ill-fit at first. At first, I liked the overall pace and mood of this very vocal-driven song right up until Mumford took the lead, which just seemed to drop a monkey wrench into the whole rhythm of it, but as with “There Will Be Time”, I’ve come to appreciate their role in ramping up the intensity so that the others can knock it out of the spark with some strong vocal spice on top of the loud, pounding drums and rock guitars. Even if you stripped out the African elements and this was a pure Mumford & Sons song, it would probably still be far more enjoyable than the lion’s share of Wilder Mind, so even though the seams are a little more obviously showing on this one, I still really like what each artist brings to the table overall.
5. Si Tu Veux
The biggest curveball on this EP is saved for last – it’s an ambient track that gives The Very Best a chance to show off their production skills while Baaba Maal slowly builds to a passionate fervor, repeating a few simple lines in French (which is also spoken in Senegal), and the other guys mostly contributing background vocals on the chorus. It’s far and away the most un-Mumford-like thing on the record, to the point where I’d never guess Mumford & Sons had anything to do with it if I had heard it out of context. That’s not at all a bad thing. The looping and electronic manipulation of Maal’s vocals make him sound a bit like West Africa’s answer to Bon Iver, and the ominous, dark bass notes looming in the background give it a rather tragic, cinematic quality, as if this song could be played in the aftermath of a climactic battle or while panning over the devastation left by some sort of a natural disaster. It’s chillingly good stuff, yet the group vocals infuse it with a tinge of optimism, as if to say the people broken by this tragedy will rise to greatness once again.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
There Will Be Time $1.75
Fool You’ve Landed $1
Si Tu Veux $1.25
Marcus Mumford: Lead vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, drums
Ben Lovett: Backing vocals, keyboard, piano, synths
Winston Marshall: Backing vocals, electric guitar,
Ted Dwane: Backing vocals, bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: