When I first saw Mumford and Sons on Saturday Night Live recently I wasn’t sure what to make of them–which is my fault not theirs. They seem like a throwback to an acoustic bluegrass-folk-rock sound. No synthesizers, sequencers or drum machines, just acoustic guitar and bass, piano/organ, banjo and dobro, a horn section, sing-song group vocals, and a lead singer/guitarist, Marcus Mumford who doubles as a drummer by playing a steady kick drum while standing up and fronting the band. The music is raucous and raw, harmonious and celebratory, but I wasn’t listening too closely–in part because I was staring at the TV wondering if Mumford’s shin muscles might be getting sore from playing that kick drum!
Mumford and Sons originated in the West London folk scene around 2007. Their recent album, Babel, was the fastest-selling album of the year here in the United States and in the UK. A few weeks ago, songs from Babel occupied four of the top ten most streamed songs on the music service Spotify. The music–which critics have called “pop songs couched in the language of the rustic troubadour” and “blockbuster bluegrass”–has clearly struck a chord with a lot of listeners. I spent a few days trying to overdose on Mumford and Sons in a listening experiment much like the one I carried out with country music here. The point of the experiment was just to figure out how everything works and to hear what kind of effect the music has on me.*
One of the band’s most streamed songs is “I Will Wait”, track three on Babel. The song is uptempo with a 4/4 thumping groove and tightly structured as a series of verses as choruses. The verse is a I-IV-V progression over 8 measures. Nothing special here, music-wise, but it sets the song’s reassuring tone. The music soon opens up with the pre-chorus section, which is a vi-v(6)-I-IV-iii-V progression repeated twice. There are twice as many chords in this section as there are in the verse and chorus in about the same number of measures. The phrase “And I’ll kneel down” gets the first three chords as support, lending the section a sense of motion–maybe a musical representation of literally kneeling down?–and a movement towards that last V chord which will lead dramatically back to the I chord that begins the chorus. The chorus is a I-iii-V progression. That second chord is minor and adds a little melancholy to the chorus’s otherwise boisterous feel. The iii chord hits just as Mumford sings “you” at the end of the line “I will wait for you.” Simple but poignant, and the words gain power as they’re repeated.
Much of Mumford and Sons’ music alternates between whisper intimate verses and rousing, bellowing-in-a-pub choruses. “I Will Wait” makes good use of these shifting dynamics to build and release tension. There’s an urgency and intense emotionality to the song which is transmitted through the steady streams of 16-note guitar/banjo strumming and plucking that supports Mumford’s gruff singing. The music sounds old-fashioned–built as it mostly is out of this strumming, plucking, and the rousing vocal harmonies. Rhythm parts don’t come from drumming as much as from the group’s collective thrum. Mumford make use of careful arrangements too. Sometimes the instruments drop out, strumming limited to the downbeat so the vocals can shine a capella-style. The music sounds live–as if we’re all down at the pub singing and sharing our stories with one another, pouring our hearts out over beers.
There are even tiny tempo variations that reinforce Mumford’s authentically live sound. If you have Babel, listen very closely from 2:06 to 2:15. At the end of the second repetition of the chorus–right around 2:11-2:13–the tempo drags ever so slightly for a brief moment. I first noticed this a few weeks ago and couldn’t put my finger on the problem. It’s so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable, but if you tap your foot along from the first time around the chorus you might catch it. You can’t quantize this kind of thing because the whole band is playing together. And maybe it’s not something you’d want to “fix” anyway. After all, it’s little quirks like this (what the ethnomusicologist Charles Keil once called “participatory discrepancies”) that let us know that the music was recorded live. I listened to the song again as I was editing this blog post and snapped to attention at 2:13 while not aware that I was even paying attention to the time.
So why is Mumford so popular now?
Maybe they’re popular because their live-sounding recordings set them apart from so much contemporary electronic pop. Ok, so I’m comparing apples and oranges here. But to continue the food metaphor: one of the most delicious things about this music is how different it is from most technologically-thick pop. Mumford feels live and sounds acoustic. This is a big deal in the context of the pop charts but not to Mumford’s members. Bassist Ted Dwayne is even an acoustic music purist:
“Electronic music or a DJ playing CDs doesn’t excite me. Acoustic instruments are really raw and have a much bigger energy. That is something I can understand.”
Some critics say that the authenticity of Mumford’s live and acoustic folk sound is simply context-related–that it sounds the way it does in part because so much other popular music feels synthetic rather than acoustic, groovy but not folky. As critic David Smyth observes, the band’s music “certainly feels authentic within the context of the charts, which are full of auto-tuned vocals and super-produced R&B songs.”
Finally, listening to Mumford has me thinking about musical style and how style usually changes quite gradually. It’s for this reason that the sound of the pop charts is quite homogenous–different songs by different artists (is “artist” even the appropriate word in this era of think-tank songwriting?) each having a similar feel and texture. Because of this, the sound of contemporary pop will seem like a static thing for a long while. As if in a game of Copy Or Perish, everyone uses similar sounds, similar beats, similar lyrical gestures to keep up with one another until…Someone comes along and does things differently. Maybe Mumford’s success will prompt a stylistic tipping point, or maybe not. Maybe they’re just a one-off–too much “rustic troubadour” to copy. Besides, one thing to remember about musical style is that homogeneity often coexists with fractionalization: there is a niche for every style that can make a case for itself. And in this regard at least, Mumford and Sons succeeds.
* Also: listening experiments help me address musical information overload. From my perspective, we have three choices:
1. Listen to a bit of everything. I do this all the time. It’s exciting but glosses over the details.
2. Listen to nothing. If nothing else, this is a good way to cleanse the ear palette.
3. Listen to one thing over and over for a while. This allows me to notice and obsess over details and also hear the music as a model of a social world. Listening to a music over and over helps me hear the world through the feeling of this one style, this one group, this one song.
A few days ago a friend texts me an urgent musical request:
“Send me roadscape”
So I send it.
About ten years ago I first tried my hand at sequencing and recording music on a computer. Back then, my Apple desktop machine was a blue- and silver-colored beast running Logic software. I also had a large Yamaha digital piano/synthesizer as a controller and sound bank. I was ready to go. But I wasn’t quite sure how to go about making electronic music. I didn’t want to just loop things–I didn’t yet grasp how that could actually be interesting. Instead, I decided to improvise parts one at a time, layering stuff to hear what might happen. It was the first time I had tried such an all digital project.
One day, I happen upon a preset sound that sounds like a DX-7- ish keyboard bell timbre. There isn’t anything particularly attractive about this sound, but I’m struck how if I hold down a note long enough the patch makes the initial bell sound followed by a strange sort of continuous drone resonance that slowly increases in volume. It’s kind of spooky–in an engaging musical way that makes your ears perk up and listen, as if responding:”Oh, where is this sound going? Cool!” In my experience, it’s like that with sounds. A sound grabs you because it’s interesting, maybe somewhat indeterminate and ambiguous, evocative, and ultimately compelling. (Now that I think about it, if you believe that we project our values out onto the sounds we like, then I’ve just unwittingly offered you some of the adjectives I prize!) So I play with the bell sound for bit. After a few minutes I hit record and improvise some simple and consonant arpeggios–fourths and fifths, octaves, some thirds. I leave a lot of space between my notes. This space allows that spooky after-resonance to emerge. It also leaves room for the other parts that I will soon layer in.
The next part is the piano. The Yamaha controller has a wonderful piano sound and that combined with its weighted keys makes it a pleasure to play. After double checking the notes in the bell part, I hit record and play along with it on the piano, adding deep bass notes, some cluster chords, and again, pausing between phrases to create space around the notes. Since I’m working in MIDI, an errant note or two can be easily fixed later. The key is to improvise a take non-stop. This gives the part the best chance of being cohesive and having a sense of tension and directionality–like it’s moving towards something. After a few aborted takes, I play something all the way through that I’m happy with. I listen back to it once to make sure it’s okay.
Next, percussion parts. I load up a preset kit on the keyboard and limit myself to kick drum, hi hat, and snare drum-ish sounds–which sound more metallic that drum-like. The sounds are located between the notes C and E on the keyboard so they are easy to play together with my fingers as drum sticks. I play back the DX-7 and piano sounds and play along to them. It’s not a steady beat per se that I’m playing; more like percussive interjections, filling some of those deliberately left spaces with little shards of groove that don’t repeat much. As the music gets louder and softer I try to drum along at those dynamics–responding to the other two parts as if in dialogue with them. (Electronic music making = talking back to oneself!) After I’ve recorded the play-along percussion part, I copy its MIDI onto another track loaded with the same kit sound. I displace this kit by about a beat or so, turning it into an echo of the first part. I also pan each drum part to the far left and right, respectively, making a true stereo percussive field. It isn’t regular procedure to extreme pan drum tracks like this, but I like the sound and the clarity brought by the separation between the original and its copy.
The final layer is bass. I chose a simple sine tone bass. I like sine tone basses because they get the low-end job down without calling undo attention to themselves. With the bass sound I double some of the low piano notes, playing in unison with them, and where I can I add in little flourishes and lead-ins. After I have recorded a pass, I listen back while looking at the MIDI on the piano roll onscreen, finessing a note here or there up or down (if I missed a pitch) or left or right (if I was early or late doubling a piano note). But for the most part I leave it as is.
With that I’m done and bounce down to an MP3 file. I title the four-part piece “Roadscape.” I like how the music wanders yet still has a sense of something almost arriving–like the road just up ahead that keeps disappearing around the bend.
In a recent online interview excerpted in The Guardian, musician and Portishead member Geoff Barrow discusses the idea of singing with a “fake” voice. Leading the pack in Barrow’s view is the late Amy Winehouse, a white singer who sang, some people say disparagingly, like a black jazz or soul singer from an earlier era–or like someone doing an imitation of such a singer. (There is an excellent article on this topic by Daphne Brooks in The Nation.) Barrow just doesn’t buy Winehouse’s voice, saying that “her actual voice was fake. She had a real life with a fake voice”–a singer who “had become just a comic character of herself and how she sang.”
You can decide for yourself. Here is Winehouse singing her song “You Know I’m No Good”:
Out of curiosity, I read up on Winehouse on Wikipedia. I found a quote from the jazz singer Tony Bennett, who maintained that Winehouse’s voice was the real deal–not fake at all, but steeped in the jazz tradition: “she was the only singer that really sang what I call the ‘right way’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer. . . She was really a great jazz singer. A true jazz singer.”
In contrast to Winehouse, Barrow mentions a few other female singers—including PJ Harvey, Barrow’s Portishead bandmate Beth Gibbons, and Bjork–who “change their voices while remaining themselves.” Presumably what Barrow means by this is that each of these singers assume a singing voice which, while not their speaking voice per se (after all, whose singing voice is?) is nevertheless somehow true to who they are. But how can a listener make this determination?
I have always liked Bjork’s voice, mainly because it’s so unique–a flexible tool that can sing those unusual Bjorkian melodies. And come to think of it, Bjork’s singing voice is just like her speaking voice but louder and more melodic, arising organically out of the same Icelandic source. Bjork sings in a way that sounds like a heightened spoken voice–as if she’s singing-explaining some very cool things to curious elementary school kids and getting carried away. Her voice seems to be true to who she is.
Here is Bjork singing her song “Moon” (which, by the way, features some devastatingly good overdubbed background vocals):
As for that best-selling singer of recent years, the Englishwoman Adele, Barrow adds: “Strangely enough I think Adele sings in her own voice, I think it’s her trying to be a big voice and that’s her.” But again, how does Barrow come by his insight? How can a listener know Adele is “trying” to be a big voice? Maybe she just has a powerful, big voice.
Here is Adele singing her huge hit “Someone Like You.” One thing I noticed about it compared to the Bjork and Winehouse songs is how massive Adele’s recorded vocal sound is. This is due to her big voice but also to a pristine recording that really booms:
These are all interesting notions: What does Barrow mean by singing with a “fake voice”? How do we know when a singer’s or instrumentalist’s artistry is fake or authentically the real McCoy? And what does it mean to change one’s singing voice while remaining oneself?
First, being “fake” in musical terms usually means making use of a style or idiom or timbre that isn’t “natural” to you, isn’t authentically yours. In the case of Winehouse, her detractors feel that she wholesale appropriated her vocal sound rather than…Rather than what? Developed it in isolation, free of stylistic influence? You can see the can of worms this opens up: How do we hear the difference between someone authentically inhabiting a sound as opposed to just fakingly co-opting it in a tourist-y kind of way? Maybe with singers, their voices either ring true or not, although a lot of singing–from pop to opera–sounds affected anyway. With instrumentalists, judging authenticity is even more problematic because instrumentalists can to some degree hide behind their instrument’s sound. All this to say that it’s hard to ever really know how genuinely artists lay claim to a sound and come by their knowledge of its stylistic conventions.
Second, whether we’re talking about singers or instrumentalists, we judge fakeness or authenticity by listening and trusting our guts, and I suppose, our eyes: Does this sound make sense coming from this person? By this measure, Winehouse’s slurred slinkiness, Bjork’s wandering wide-eyed rapture, and Adele’s bellowing all ring true. Each singer inhabits her own kind of authenticity.
Finally, as for changing one’s singing voice while remaining oneself, I’m not sure I understand what this means. Why does it matter whether or not one remains oneself as one sings or plays an instrument? Hasn’t making music always been a kind of theater anyway, a way for performers to try on different hats?
The Union Square subway station in New York City is a pretty loud place. As the N, R, L, 4, 5, and 6 trains pull into the station there’s some serious, 90-plus decibel metallic screeching happening when the cars hit their breaks and come to a stop.
Given this noisy soundscape, I was both surprised and not surprised to encounter two noise/free-improv musicians holding forth on the 4, 5, and 6 platform. One guy plays the saxophone, the other an electric guitar fed through some effects pedals. Their music is noisy, ad hoc and chaotic, the sax player ripping through atonal lines, squawks and wheezes, while the guitarist strums a constant rhythmic drone in the upper octaves of his instrument. Sometimes it’s not even quite clear how their parts relate to one another. And while there are moments of melody and space, for the most part this isn’t easy listening material. It’s intense.
Their music making is a perfect example of the importance of hearing music in its context of production. I’ve watched some listeners look at these musicians and shake their heads derisively, as if saying: “Why on earth are you making noise in this already noisy place?” But another way to listen to them is as commentators on our environment–interpreting the industrial sounds around us and transforming them into a variety of music. It’s in this way that music has always felt like a kind of alchemy.
Not everyone is buying it though–some folks just plug their ears and shake their heads as they walk by. But I gave the guys money because their music and choice of performance venue made me stop for a moment and think.
Recently an email from Native Instruments (NI), a music technology company, appeared in my inbox. NI occasionally sends out ads for its products, limited time discount offers, software updates, and so on, and as a NI software owner I always happily read these emails and then ignore them–unless we’re talking about the software updates, in which case I go and follow the links. Such is the nature of electronic music technology: once you buy into a brand, you’re constantly “attended to” by the company and encouraged to buy and update more and more. In this way, the lines between consumption and production and advertising are not only blurry, but overlapping too.
But back to that recent NI email. It was a promotion for NI’s successful hardware/software rhythm instrument, Maschine. I wrote about first experiencing this technology “in the flesh” (“in the plastic”?) in a blog post here last year. In this Maschine email, NI included a video of a musician using the instrument to improvise a sample-based music. The musician is Mario Galeano who lives and works in Colombia and leads the group Frente Cumbiero. (I’ve just begun listening to them.)
The video is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, Galeano is a combination of record collector, DJ, composer, and musicologist-historian who uses his love of traditional cumbia music to inform his electronic music making. This leads to me to a second interesting thing, which is that Galeano’s music isn’t your run of the mill electronic dance music. Rather, it’s built on syncopated samples of acoustic instruments from old cumbia records. Galeano’s music sounds–to use a clichéd way of distinguishing a music–more organic than synthetic. And this, in turn, may also be a by-product of the third thing that makes this NI video interesting: Galeano’s improvising on Maschine’s squishy square buttons to perform his music. At 2:10 in the video, we seem him play around with audio samples from old records from the 1960s and 70s.
It’s for these reasons that this NI video is such an effective promotional tool. It’s about a seductive technology, sure, but this technology is socially situated in a real musician’s life and naturalized by being shown to be a practical help to his ways of working– helping him sample old records and then play back those samples in what Galeano describes as “a very tactile way.” The meta-message? If this piece of gear helps him do all that, imagine what it might help me do?
You can read more about Galeano and Frente Cumbiero here.
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