What Mumford & Sons Could Learn From Neko Case

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Sept. 12 2013 2:44 PM

Can Mumford and Sons Get Better?

The band’s hey-nonny-nonsense can grate, but past revival movements have nurtured great acts—like Neko Case.   

Neko Case
Neko Case, here in 2010, does new-old music right.

Photo silhouette by Slate. Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images

“I hope banjo and yelling ‘hey!’ are still cool, because that’s half of our new record,” quipped New Pornographers frontman Carl Newman in a much-retweeted Twitter post this summer. The indie-powerpop songwriter of course was mocking bands such as Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, the Avett Brothers, and others who’ve emerged in recent years as an improbably popular offshoot of the squeaky-cleanest side of folk music, filling arenas with young people shouting along to exclamatory Anglo-American acoustic anthems.

If nothing else, the trend has been great at provoking priceless kids-today ire from rockers such as Newman, the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, and even Alice Cooper. But I too have to confess my nonplussedness: Of all the strains of 1960s folk revivalism, the last I’d have figured anyone missed was the happy-clappy collegiate spirit of the New Christy Minstrels. Yet here it is enjoying a reanimation in the second decade of the 21st century. And it’s not only the multiplatinum, Grammy-guesting, hanging-with-celebs hootenanny-jam bands—old-timey music is hip with tribes of boho youth who can be found affecting creaky hill-people vocals and busking favorite cuts from the Anthology of American Folk Music in porkpie hats and/or cutoff Crass T-shirts at indie music festivals and/or street corners in New Orleans.

It’s a very inexact science to dissect why musical movements happen. They might be set in motion by individual inspiration, respond to socio-economic conditions, or evolve out of innovations within a form (from, e.g., swing to bebop) or via new technology (1980s synth-pop or 1990s techno) or from distinctive street cultures (1950s doo-wop). Often—for instance with hip-hop—you’d have to say all of the above. Revivalist waves are more mysterious still: Why do clusters of young musicians and listeners gravitate to particular bygone sounds at particular times, and is there more to it than nostalgic arrested development?

New records this month from Newman’s sometime-bandmate Neko Case and from songwriter Richard Buckner reminded me of another roots movement, in its own way as unlikely as the current litter of Brothers and Sons: the rise in the early 1990s of “alternative country” (or alt-country), which saw artists with rock and punk backgrounds filling their records with fiddles, mandolins, pedal steel, and twangy accents of dubious regional provenance. Case and Buckner were grouped under that umbrella along with early Wilco, the Old 97s, Son Volt and many more, and though alt-country’s track record now looks pretty good, at the time music snobs scorned it as phony carpetbagging as often as they embraced it.

You could read each of these “roots” moves as reactions to the anxiety of cultural rootlessness: in the 1990s, to the mushrooming of the exurbs and to media saturation; today, to the displacement and disembodiment brought on by digital lifestyles. They’re gestures against the modern. They’re also both cases of young generations bruised by recessions identifying with genres associated with past economic deprivation. This is where the revivals run into trouble, of course, because borrowing the cultural markers of an “other” as metaphors for your own condition can get awkward, if not downright offensive, as Miley Cyrus’ Twerkmageddon at the Video Music Awards amply demonstrated. It’s just a little less blatant when it’s a case of white-on-white appropriation that fetishizes, say, the rural as a form of authenticity it can inhabit selectively—all of the “character” with none of the farm work.

I admired many 1990s alt-country acts, but I’ll always remember being taken patiently to task by a broad-minded Nashville bluegrass player who pointed out that punky slipshod musicianship would not get a pass in any branch of country, and that the “hat acts” I then disdained (Garth Brooks, for instance) were far more squarely within the tradition. He was understandably irritated by the young Ryan Adams crooning, with his band Whiskeytown, that he “started this damn country band/ ’cuz punk rock was too hard to sing.”

Spin’s Chuck Eddy has done an excellent job of playing my bluegrass friend’s part for the Mumfords, plumbing their historical shallows compared to previous British folk revivalists: “Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span were students of centuries of jigs, reels, waltzes, and Morris Dances, and figured out how to modernize them, beautifully. … [But] the Mumfords barely skim the surface. They don't seem remotely musically curious.”

Yet I think there are more sympathetic ways to look at these phenomena, socially and musically. Ann Powers of NPR has argued that the Mumfetts’ appeal to communal-singalong positivity has a spiritual upside: “[When] I hear Mumford & Sons or the Avett Brothers, I recognize the same internal fights, the same desire to grapple with impossibly big terms like ‘sincerity’ and ‘belief,’ that U2's music helped me through twenty years ago. … [To] deny that widely shared notions of being good and strong and fulfilled — the things Marcus Mumford sings about — don't have power is to dismiss a lot of what lives in people's hearts.”

That effect is reinforced by the fact that these are bands (or at least duos) at a time when pop is dominated by solo rappers and divas. You could call Mumford & Sons a One Direction for more grown-up audiences or an Arcade Fire for the more mainstream—they have the attraction of collectivity, even of surrogate family.

Alt-country was in part about those emotional connections as well. It was no coincidence that it surfaced right around “the year punk broke,” when what had been a clannish rock subculture in the 1980s turned into music-industry big business. Folkie and country sounds offered a doubling down on DIY, in which friends could grab guitars and make noise without needing Marshall stacks and a tour bus, as if around the campfire or the kitchen table. Boston’s Scud Mountain Boys (who recently released their first album together in over 16 years and are on tour this month) would even haul an actual table and lamps on stage.

But there was also an individualist counterdynamic. In the era of post-punk and grunge, groups ruled and singer-songwriters were thought limp and uncool. Solo artists tried to muddy that distinction by adopting handles that sounded like band names—bandonyms, as I’ve called them, such as Smog, the Mountain Goats, or Palace. Drawing on the “old, weird America” (in Greil Marcus’ problematic phrase) of country and hillbilly music was another way that artists who leaned toward introspective acoustic music could find a niche and some crucial mystique. There were many kinds of alt-country, but one of its functions was as a refuge for the singer-songwriter in an inhospitable time.

Underlining that fact is how quickly many of the best of them shed the country trappings. Most had resisted the alt-country label in the first place, with a typical Gen-X wariness toward branding—enough so that the genre’s flagship magazine No Depression felt compelled to tag itself the journal of “alternative country music (whatever that is).” But once they’d gotten established, many such artists started trucking down more esoteric roads.

Richard Buckner and Neko Case are perfect examples—their new albums share a dark restlessness, a self-searching intelligence, and the fact that you wouldn’t be inclined to use the word “twang” to describe either of them.

Buckner made his reputation with 1994’s Bloomed, recorded in Texas with producer Lloyd Maines (father of the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie) and a team of Austin studio crackerjacks. Its drawling ballads of heartbreak, booze and death followed clear, affecting, sometimes even melodramatic narrative arcs, albeit with signs of po-mo slacker literary airs. It got him signed to major label MCA. But from there he hired a bunch of Chicago and Arizona indie experimentalists to enhance his records with marimbas, discord, and feedback, and his lyrics became less like stories and more like cryptic treasure maps. Devotion and Doubt and Since were all the better for it, to me a couple of the best albums of the late 1990s, but sales disappointed and he was quickly dropped from his label.

He went through a wilderness period of personal upheaval and fine but very small-scale releases before Merge Records adopted him, in what seems mostly like an act of artistic patronage rather than business strategy, for 2004’s Dents and Shells and three more, mostly overlooked albums since. (His one stroke of luck has been that Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has credited Buckner as the greatest influence on his own elliptical verbal style—but who listens to Bon Iver for the lyrics?)

Buckner’s new record, Surrounded, is a chamber piece about insomnia and missed chances recorded in his rural Kingston, N.Y., home. It is as intimate as a stare, and as potentially claustrophobic. But it feels like a journey of reconciliation, with painfully pretty acoustic-guitar textures layered into keyboard loops that sometimes approach electronic trance music, and with a newly burnished richness to his rough-grained voice. The lyrics, parts of a prose piece included in the liner notes, spill over from one song to another, all hint and dodge. Surrounded yields its secrets stubbornly, but for anyone in need of a soundtrack of hard-won solace, it could become a touchstone.

Like Buckner, Neko Case had an unstable childhood in a far-from-functional family—good enough reason to be drawn to the hardscrabble side of country music. Born in Virginia and raised in Washington State, she started out drumming in punk bands out of art school in Vancouver, then launched her solo career with 1997’s The Virginian, a record country enough to include covers of Ernest Tubb and the Everly Brothers. Her steps away from alt-country were more gradual than Buckner’s, perhaps in part because she had another stylistic outlet with the New Pornographers, because she stuck more consistently with her collaborators (including secret-weapon background vocalist Kelly Hogan), and because the voraciously melodious, hush-to-howl musculature of her one-of-a-kind voice made so much sense in the lineage of powerhouse country singers like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Subsequent albums turned first to the noir, torch-song side of country, and then became more expansive.

Her new, confrontationally titled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The More I Fight, The More I Love You is more sonically gregarious than ever, with its horns, drums, chimes, vocal choruses, and guest appearances by the likes of Jim James of My Morning Jacket.* It sounds more influenced by Sparks and Harry Nilsson than by the Carter Family. Even her rambunctious last album, Middle Cyclone, was not so musically rangy. This time, however, all that sound is being marshaled in a battle against melancholy: She’s been frank that this album is the product of a profound depression after the deaths of her beloved grandmother (inspiration of many of the songs on her best album, 2006’s mystic-realist Fox Confessor Brings the Flood) and of her estranged parents. Being at odds with one’s family, she’s discovered, doesn’t necessarily dilute the impact of their loss; it might make it far worse. Even at Case’s bleakest she never loses her sense of humor, and she has an ear for gentle succor, but on this record the stakes are never low.

But while it’s impossible to be bored when you’re listening to Neko Case sing, several of these songs feel like they’re stalking feelings they can’t quite capture. Case has said that she wrote some of them in such a blue haze that she doesn’t even remember the process, and that fuzziness is palpable. It reminds me of Blacklisted, Case’s record just before Fox Confessor, sounding like someone on the verge of a breakthrough but not out of the swamp yet. If the next leap is nearly as big as that one I can hardly imagine the results.

This seems to be her aim. Amid the silly ribald chatter in her appearance on the Nerdist podcast recently, Case disclosed in a sobering moment: “I just really want to do a good job. That’s what I really want. Because … I don’t have a husband or a family or anything—like, well, I fuckin’ married this shit, I’d better go from journeyman to master at some point. Or at least really try. You’d better get into the anti-gravity suit and spend your 26 hours in the lead chamber or whatever the hell you have to do, in your sensory-deprivation pod, and come out the other side fuckin’ Pavarotti, if you’ve jettisoned the rest of your earthly joys”—she laughed—“for music.” (A few extra fucks deleted.)

An incubator in which to grow “from journeyman to master”—that’s another iteration, I think, of what the alt-country chrysalis permitted both Case and Buckner early in their careers. They could draw upon the finest of the past while their own voices emerged, but also see from history how far there was left to go. Now they grow nearer those heights with each new phase, having long since cleared the sagebrush and struck their own paths.

So perhaps there is hope, too, for the yo-ho’ing Mumfineers, that some of them will shrug off their thrift-shop motley for tunes more befitting their own shapes and times, with enough vitality that some later revivalist might even take them for inspiration. If not, at least they’ll have given thousands of people an excuse to gulp down extra oxygen and have a big group sing, which might not go down in musical history but is good for the cardiovascular system and the serotonin receptors too, while awaiting the day a fresher musical movement sneaks up behind us and yells “hey!”

Correction, Sept. 12, 2013: This article originally referred to Jim James as Jim Jones. (Return.)

Carl Wilson is Slate's music critic.