For a few years now British pop music has been sugar coated with a blanket of riotous country banjos, feathery rural vocals and Shakespearian soliloquies. Fundamentally, the success around this folk ‘revival’ has revolved around folks relationship to pop music and commercialism. However, this may not be the entire story.
A lot of blame needs to be placed the eloquent and effortless folk/pop recipe created by Mumford and Sons. 2009 was a stirred into flawed submission to the twangy tie-wearing and grass chewing charm presented by the critically acclaimed Sigh No More, the bands debut record. The formula was simple. Slap up a lucidly structured pop song with a couple of banjo’s, scribble down a varied and romanticised Shakespearian sonnet and cover yourself head to toe in tweed. Give it a few months, and voilà, folk is cool again.
Tragically, the concentration of people refuse to believe that folk had sophisticated and sexy credentials in a pre-Mumford and Sons culture. The UK, especially, are blind folded the wide circulation of integral and root folk bands that are available to listen to. Without wanting to sound bitter, the US have always had a bit of a head start with the folk baton. Across the Atlantic, folk music has always been cool.
In 1997, Nebraskan indie-folk merchant Elliot Smith released Either/Or, and gave folk a much needed alternative kick up the arse. Agreeably titled ‘Mr Misery’ by the American press, Smith melodically orbited folk into a new, more commercial, and nearly Oscar winning direction. Similarly, since 1995 Conor Oberst and his outfit Bright Eyes have maintained a rooted and predisposed folky essence into a pool which is dominated by pop music. Unlike the chemistry exercised by bands like Of Monsters and Men, Ben Howard and, of course, Mumford and Sons, the formula is more complex.
Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, pioneers of folk were making, contextually, pop music. Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Richie Havens etc were the pop stars. Folk was the main musical input as a specific genre, but pop and pop culture, along with the aid of other genres, was the consequential product. Simon and Garfunkel made folk music that was being channeled as pop music, and rightly so. However, today we the see the opposite. Commercially, bands are making pop music that sounds like folk, rather than folk music that sounds like pop.
Beyond the influencing sediment of pop music in folks clothing, you’ll stumble upon the odd cluster of underrated bands and artists. Favoured Heroine Laura Marling being one of the few shaping forces and almost immovable object to grace the masses with her country mazes and gratifying folk values. Grizzly Bear, Local Natives, Fleet Foxes, Stornoway, Arcade Fire, Lightspeed Champion and Bombay Bicycle club are the obvious collective and recognisable exceptions that do, thankfully, take a certain level of mercantile credit.
Even so, there are more layers of the onion to peel back and weep over just yet. Bands like Young Colossus, The Staves, Sparklehorse, Monsters of Folk etc go unnoticed and uncredited for making versatile, imaginative and pulchritudinous music. Dismally, we live in an evolving culture that chooses to sign post and gate keep the largely profitable exports and imports of folk music, while successful and brutally talented writers such as Ron Sexsmith are left in the dark.
If you think about it, Mumford and Sons are a dolled up version of The Decembrists. The differences are subtle, but they are still differences. The texture and graduator of the vocals, the rhythmic patterns of the music and the style the lyrics are written. Inevitably though, the commercialised nature of the pop and folk balance will always swing in the direction of money.
Over the past three or four years, it turns out that folk music didn’t go through a revival. Instead, pop chose a new may to manifest itself and get itself on the shop windows, as is the capitalist nature of the business.
Carry on listening to Mr Mumford and his merry company of pop troops. I’ll stick to Deerhunter and The National thank you.
It’s about folk music sounding like pop, not pop music sounding like folk. A significant difference, which ever way you look at it.