mumford and sons sigh no more review

Bluegrass with a British twist...

[rating: 5/5]
(5 out of 5 stars)

Release Date: August 12, 2009

Label: Independent

Members: Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, Marcus Mumford, Country Winston

Standout Songs
Little Lion Man
Dust Bowl Dance
White Blank
Page Winter Winds

Let it be known that I have a soft spot in my heart for bluegrass.   Why?  First, I grew up in the great state of Virginia, after all.  Second, the emotional honesty of bluegrass melodies and lyrics are rarely matched (hey, it was a tough life for those Appalachian peeps).  And third, there's something about a well-played banjo that just resonates with me.  But British-based indie-folk bluegrass? Really? Well, I'm here to tell you: yes, really. Emphasis on YES.

"Oh, man is a giddy thing" sing Mumford and Sons on their album Sigh No More and that is exactly how I felt after fully taking in all 12 songs on this debut album.  I thought, man what a unique sound.  Almost like they've created their own musical niche.  And I can also tell you when I realized I was going to love this album: 14 seconds into the first song I heard.  On a friend's recommendation I pulled up the "Little Lion Man" video and started listening...okay, great intro with some acoustic guitar strumming but then...BAM...bass drum and fuzz-distortion cello.  Fuzz-distortion cello?  Who does that?  And makes it work?  Well, Mumford and Sons does and what they have created with Sigh No More is an expertly-crafted collection of songs that signals the emergence of a powerful new voice in the alt-country and folk music world.

Let me just get this out of the way up-front: I wouldn't give out 5 stars but for something spectacular.  Like "bore your friends with constant accolades" spectacular.  Look, last month I gave the rave-worthy Kina Grannis 4.5/5 stars and trust me, I've been on a Kina Grannis soapbox for a while (you can check out my review of Kina Grannis' new album Stairwells here).  So a 5/5...well, that's rare air. What I'm saying here isn't revolutionary. These dudes are the toast of the UK right now. They're being slurped by every NPR-style or KCRW-style radio show host out there. And they are selling out every single place they play. That said, it's all merited.  Mumford and Sons music vacillates between foot-stomping riots and haunting ballads set against some of the most emotionally charged lyrics in recent memory. These guys tell stories that grab you.  And the instrumentation is fantastic: guitar, bass, cello, banjo, piano, and the occasional horns all mix together so well.  The tightness of their melodies and instruments reminds you of Gomez and their four-part vocal harmonies bring to mind The Eagles or, more recently, The Avett Brothers.  And it is lead singer Marcus Mumford who truly sets the tone with an honest, raspy style that delivers the lyrics with skill and communicates the real emotion behind the band's stories.

The album starts with the eponymous "Sigh No More," setting the theme and tone for the rest of the journey while also paying tribute to some of the true bluegrass melodies of the 30's and 40's.  After beginning with a slow, almost-Gospel style harmony the song revs up and gives a taste of what's in store the rest of the way.   Melodies that build to a cresendo as layer upon layer of instruments fall into place: bass, then banjo, then piano, then cello and horns.  And yet with skill they can pull back and drop tempo to a soft, breath-inducing pause.  They follow this introduction with "The Cave" and "Winter Winds," the latter a beautiful up-tempo plea to do right by others and be careful with their emotions.  It has an almost anthemic quality as the song builds to a chorus filled with crashing cymbals and horns while they opine "And my head told my heart 'let love grow,' / but my heart told my head 'this time no, this time no.'"

After "Roll Away Your Stone" they deliver an emotionally charged masterpiece with "White Blank Page," a song that captures the feelings of confusion, resentment, and love that mix together in the aftermath of a broken relationship.  As Mumford and his bandmates sing, "a white blank page and a swelling rage... / so tell me now where was my fault / in loving you with my whole heart" you can literally feel the pain and anger mix together as the man sits down in front of a blank sheet of paper trying to express himself in song and letters.  The skill of the piano and banjo in this song help deliver the emotion behind the lyrics as they are the perfect accompaniment to the frustration in Mumford's voice. "Little Lion Man" (mentioned above) is a highlight on the album and delivers everything the band represents in one song.  A melody that reaches out and grabs you immediately, wonderful mixes of banjo and piano set against the driving bass drum and acoustic guitar of Marcus Mumford, and lyrics and a chorus that invite you to sing along, perhaps while stomping your feet with a glass of bourbon in your hand.

Following this are "Timshel" - a wonderful, sparsely instrumented song that relies mainly on the beautiful bluegrass vocal harmonies of the four band members, and "Dust Bowl Dance" - a brilliant, emotive song about a desperate man in a broken farming town.  "Timshel" reminded me of something that could have been in O Brouther Where Art Thou? and "Dust Bowl" is so richly textured that you can almost feel the barren landscape and dirt on your clothes as they recount the story of a lonely soul with nowhere else to go but the town and life he has known even when there is nothing left. The disc bookends with "After The Storm," a lazy and soft melody calling again on the bluegrass and country-folk roots the band harkens.

I truly had a hard time finding anything to criticize about this collection of songs.  And not that I look for things to criticize, but usually there is something on an album where I think, "hmmm...not exactly to my taste" or "yeah, that doesn't quite work for me."  Even from artists I love.  But I just didn't have that reaction to a single song on this disc.  It is brilliantly executed and flawlessly performed with a sense of urgency and emotion that comes across as genuine.

Mumford and Sons is coming to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on June 3rd, so if you live in this area I highly recommend buying tickets to that show.  Otherwise, check out their website for tour dates in your area.

And bring some good Kentucky bourbon with you :) -Mark