Review Summary: Delivering folk - and the banjo - to the masses.
When an artist attempts to bring a non-mainstream style of music to the masses, you can practically hear the cynics clearing their throat in anticipation of chanting "you sold out". Yet, one theory suggests that if a band can deliver a niche genre to the mainstream populous, they should be applauded for having the talent to achieve what few others have previously done. One such genre is folk, and while the likes of Bon Iver and the Fleet Foxes have spearheaded a resurgence in all things folksy, this has been more from a critical viewpoint rather than in the popularity stakes. Things could be about to change however, with the emergence of London quartet Mumford & Sons. Call them nu-folk of folk-pop if you like, but if lead single 'Little Lion Man' is anything to go by, then the world could soon become their oyster.
Complete with one of the catchiest sing-along choruses of the past five years, 'Little Lion Man' is backed by a bluegrass banjo-led hoedown that makes it difficult for anyone to stay still. And while the lead single is the clear highlight, this is by no means a one-song LP. The intense and noisy climax of the Manchester Orchestra like 'Dustbowl Dance' will also have most singing along, while 'White Blank Page' impresses similarly. That said, this debut also contains many a slower and sparse moment to win over the purists. In fact, one of the album's strengths is its wise track ordering, which has a kind of one-up/one-down pattern in terms of pace and volume. No matter what the type of track, nothing outstays its welcome, making 'Sigh No More' a relatively easy listen from start to finish.
The opening title track instantly showcases the quartet's impressive group vocal harmonies, but as the album progresses it is lead vocalist (and guitarist) Marcus Mumford who takes center stage. He has just enough of that "common man" quality to not only connect with the audience, but also sell the overly uplifting lyrics which do tend to get a little repetitive and grate come the end of the LP. While it is definitely pleasing to hear a folk album that is anything but depressing, lyrics such as "plant your hope with good seed, don't cover yourself with thistle & weeds" only work up until a certain stage in proceedings.
All great albums need an X-factor and in the case of 'Sigh No More' it comes in the form of producer Markus Dravs. Dravs had a major influence on Bjork's critically acclaimed 1997 release 'Homogenic', while being predominantly overlooked for his work on Coldplay's 2008 surprise 'Viva La Vida...'. What Dravs brings to 'Sigh No More' is some grandiose variety, a trait often ignored on folk albums. Horns can be heard on 'The Cave', there is a trumpet solo on 'Winter Winds', strings on 'White Blank Page', and piano plays a key role on 'Dustbowl Dance'. Furthermore, (similarly to Arcade Fire, who Dravs has also worked with) practically every track builds up in a rousing fashion, even some of those aforementioned slower and sparse cuts.
As always with an album that attempts to bring some accessibility to a niche genre, 'Sigh No More' is certain to have its detractors. Weaknesses such as being too slick, repetitive lyrics and a rigid song structure will be brought up, as will the tiresome debate over the band's upbringing. However, one needs to also keep in mind that this is a debut LP by a rather young quartet. The room for improvement only makes this consistent, catchy and accessible album all the more successful. And seriously, who can dislike an album that brings the banjo a level of popularity not seen since 1972 film 'Deliverance' was nominated for three Academy Awards? Oh, and by the way, there are thankfully no pig squeals here!
Recommended Tracks: Little Lion Man, Dustbowl Dance, White Blank Page & Winter Winds.