Music

Mumford & Sons: Babel

Mumford & Sons seem to have figured out that there is more than one way to put together a song. This tweaking of their songwriting technique gives this album a decent flow, and makes it a much smoother listen than Sigh No More.


Mumford & Sons

Babel

Label: Island
US Release Date: 2012-09-25
UK Release Date: 2012-09-24
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Mumford & Sons' debut album, Sigh No More, sold millions of copies based on the strength of its two singles, "Little Lion Man" and "The Cave". All credit to the band and Glassnote Records, because it would have been difficult to find two better songs from Sigh No More to spring on an unsuspecting public. "Little Lion Man", with its urgent, minor key guitar and banjo interplay and its bracing chorus ("I really fucked it up this time"), managed to sound organic and folky while still rocking surprisingly hard for an acoustic group. "The Cave" was a perfect complement. Despite also being in a minor key, the song was bright-sounding and built to a huge horn-infused climax while never losing its forward momentum.

It was fortunate that the band had such a strong pair of singles, because the rest of Sigh No More was disappointingly monochromatic. Mumford & Sons seemed to have two settings -- quiet and still or loud and bombastic. And most of the time, the songs started quiet and still and then quickly burst into loud and bombastic. Did you like the chugging minor key acoustic guitar of "Little Lion Man"? Good, because you heard it a bunch more times if you bought the album! Did you like how the band added horns to bolster its sound on "The Cave"? Excellent. You got to hear them do that again and again as well! Sure, the band was doing something very different from its brethren in the Top 40 pop universe, but it was doing it differently in the exact same way on nearly every song.

So the challenge for Mumford & Sons with their all-important follow-up album, Babel, was to replicate their previous success while expanding their sound and improving their songwriting. Clearly, resting on their laurels was an option. It's easy to take selling two million albums in the United States and another million in the UK as a mandate to keep doing exactly the same thing. But one would hope the young band would take their success and use it as a chance to improve and grow as a band. Fortunately for their fans and for fans of the folk and Americana genres everywhere, Mumford & Sons have taken the latter path. At times, they're still annoyingly bombastic for an ostensible folk band, but Babel shows a lot of development stylistically.

First single "I Will Wait" is a small illustration of that development. It's a song largely driven by the nonstop kick drum of lead singer Marcus Mumford, Mumford's guitar strumming, and Winston Marshall's active banjo line. But this time around, the band opts to use a major key for its sentimental message of love. It gives the band's excellent harmonies additional warmth, and the horn section is used in small doses but to good effect. It's a good single because it's instantly recognizable as Mumford & Sons without specifically repeating their earlier tracks.

What Babel does well is tone down the band's tendency to shove every element they like into every single song. So the album opens with the title track, which features Mumford singing as loud as possible while the band chugs away in a minor key. It's exactly what you'd expect, but instead of starting quiet and going loud, the band stops dead a couple times mid-song and lets Mumford get quiet. It's not a big departure, but for Mumford & Sons, this counts as progress. Second song "Whispers in the Dark" is another uptempo stomper with Mumford obsessively thumping his kick drum on every beat. But he backs off on the usually-overpowering guitar strumming here and lets Marshall's banjo picking dominate the music.

It isn't until around the middle of the album that the band really starts to stretch out. "Ghosts That We Knew" is a bonafide ballad, complete with gorgeous piano chords and beautiful, close harmonies that add to the warmth. As the song goes, it gradually adds in acoustic guitar and nice, subtle electric slide guitar, but resists the urge to go big. Not only is the refrain the quietest part of the song, but the band also has the good sense to let the track gradually fade out. In a bit of perfect sequencing, this song is followed by "Lover of the Light", a big, inspiring widescreen track. It effectively weaves in a lot of elements the band struggled with on their first album. It's midtempo, it's major key, it uses the band's part-time horn section effectively but not intrusively, and it has something resembling an actual banjo riff, not just quick-fingered picking. Mumford's typical romantic platitudes are given heft by the big, bright music, so "Love the one you hold / And I'll be your goal / To have and to hold / A lover of the light" actually sounds inspiring instead of cheesy.

The band's harmonizing takes center stage on "Lover's Eyes", a song that begins with sparse instrumentation and has the feel of an Irish spiritual crossed with the vocals of Crosby, Stills and Nash. "Hopeless Wanderer" returns to the band's old trick of starting slow and instantly speeding up to double time about 90 seconds into the song. But this time around, Mumford & Sons throw in an extra twist, returning to the original tempo while retaining the louder volume. When the song eventually returns to full speed, it's a shift that works simply because the band has refrained from using that technique on the rest of the album.

Not everything on Babel is so successful. "Broken Crown" sounds like an outtake from Sigh No More, as the band overplays the darkness of the song and does it at the loudest possible volume. Apocalyptic minor piano chords pound in the background along with shimmering, creepy droning noises. Up front, Mumford again thumps away nonstop on his kick drum while spitting out the lyrics, even throwing in a gratuitous "fuck" for good measure: "So crawl on my belly 'til the sun goes down / I'll never wear your broken crown / I took the road / And I fucked it all away!" Earlier in the album, the fourth track "Holland Road" is the fourth uptempo song in a row from the start of the record. While it's catchy enough, it suffers from being too similar in style and speed as the first three tracks and doesn't make much of an impact.

Mumford & Sons seem to have figured out that there is more than one way to put together a song. This tweaking of their songwriting technique gives this album a decent flow, and makes it a much smoother listen than Sigh No More. While there are some real gems here, occasionally the songs tend to fade into generic background folk music. This happens near the album's end in particular. The band still takes the "all hands on deck” approach too often, pulling out the horn section and background electric guitars to make a huge clamor. Also, if Mumford & Sons go on to have a long-term career, one hopes they will eventually realize that guitar and piano can also be used as melody instruments and not just for rhythm and chords, respectively. That would go a long way toward giving their sound more variety. Still, the band has made small but significant strides since their first album. Babel isn't a great album, but it is a good one.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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