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Hard Left Turns

A Trio of Surprise Reinventions

6/21/16

If you’ve been reading this silly music column for a while, you know that artistic restlessness is pretty much my favorite thing.

If you want me to love your band – I mean, really love your band – the worst thing you can do is stay in a rut. If you’ve made the same album half a dozen times, I’ve probably stopped listening, or at least listening more than once. But if you’ve decided to be unpredictable and surprising, to the point where I have no idea what you’re going to do next, I’m in. Make a record on kazoos. Sing in gibberish. Compose 75-minute suites. Write an album with your grandmother. Just make it good, and keep me guessing.

In that frame of mind, I want to write something in praise of bizarre and unexpected decisions. I obviously have a lot of interest in artistic identity, but I love it when bands tell artistic identity to go hang. I love it when artists do interesting things that, at least at first, seem so far afield as to be ludicrous. It’s especially fun when the artist in question has such an established voice and way of working that you can’t really imagine how they would pull off something new and daring.

This will shock some of you, but right now I’m talking about Mumford and Sons.

Marcus Mumford and his banjo-picking troupe hit the scene in 2009 with Sigh No More, an album I quite liked. They stood in a line like a bluegrass band, playing acoustic instruments and a single bass drum, and sang dramatic folk songs that floored me with their intensity. (“I Gave You All” still kinda knocks me out.) But a sea of imitators and a repetitive second record played that sound out, and Mumford found himself staring down an artistic dead end. Third album Wilder Mind tried to break out of that with loud electric guitars and drums, but ended up sounding pretty generic, and left the band in a weird limbo, unwilling to sound like themselves again but unsure of their new path.

Apparently, though, they've discovered that not knowing where you’re going can be remarkably freeing. The new Mumford and Sons EP, Johannesburg, is a collaboration with African musicians, and creates an entirely new context for what they do. Mumford and company work here with famed Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, Cape Town pop band Beatenberg and The Very Best, a DJ/vocal group with members who hail from Malawi. All of the African musicians are listed on the cover – this is collaboration, not appropriation, and everyone is an equal partner in this music.

And it shows. Mumford shares the vocal spotlight with Maal and with Very Best singer Esau Mwamwaya, to the point of barely even showing up on the final track, “Si Tu Veux.” African pop abounds here – the slinky clean guitars, the percussion, the groove. Mumford and Sons, for their part, bring only the qualities I’ve always liked about them – their big, dramatic choruses, their massive harmonies, their sense of dynamics. Those qualities fit in here perfectly, particularly on the opening track, “There Will Be Time.” Beginning with soft piano chords and Maal’s gentle voice, the song slowly picks up, finally exploding in a trademark Mumford refrain: “In the cold light I live to love and adore you, it’s all that I have...” It’s the same crescendo, the same catharsis, but the sound is completely different.

“Fool You’ve Landed” is more of a straightforward groove-pop song, the African harmonies leading into a catchy chorus surrounded by hand drums. “Ngamila” finds Mumford dueting with Mwamwaya over a lovely piano figure before the big guitar chords crash in, bringing a dose of Britpop with them. It’s not even a tiny bit jarring, though – it all works beautifully. And the incredible “Si Tu Veux” is a showcase for Maal, singing over ambient guitar and a small army of percussionists. It’s vast, filling the room, triumphant, a stunning closer to this all-too-brief experiment.

And it still leaves Mumford and Sons in the same place, without a viable path forward. But it does signal that they are far more adventurous and interesting than many, including me, gave them credit for. I love discovering that. I love it when bands take my idea of who they are and blow it through the sky. I have no idea what they’re going to try next, and I don’t even know if they know. But I’m suddenly very excited to find out.

* * * * *

Bruce Hornsby is one of my piano heroes.

Some of you may know that I dabble as a piano player. Hornsby was one of the first players I fell in love with, and one of the most daunting to try to emulate. I’ve seen him live, and been gobsmacked by his ability, particularly his left-right independence. I have no idea how he physically plays some of his songs (“King of the Hill” and “Spider Fingers” come to mind). I know whenever I buy a new Hornsby record I’m going to get quirky songwriting and impeccable, jaw-dropping, study-worthy piano playing.

So of course, here’s Hornsby with his first piano-free album. Rehab Reunion finds him on the dulcimer for all ten tracks, leading his band the Noisemakers in a totally new way. The voice and the songs are the same, but it’s surprisingly strange to hear that voice over twangy stringed instruments. The Noisemakers have gone totally organic for this record, with mandolins and fiddles and acoustic guitars, the lovely electric solos of Gibb Droll being the only real exception. If you think of the piano as part of Hornsby’s core identity, he’s here to prove you wrong.

And he does, because this record is great. Key to its success is the Hornsby way with a witty lyric and a melody. It begins with a pair of more serious tracks, and I’m a big fan of opener “Over the Rise,” with backing vocals by Justin Vernon. But before long Hornsby’s lodging his tongue in his cheek. The protagonist of “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.” finds a new girlfriend: “She doesn’t even care that much that I’m not Latino, and her papi says he thinks that I look like Dan Marino.” “Tipping” is literally about figuring out how much to leave as a tip: “Five or ten percent’s too cheap, even twenty percent’s too steep, don’t know how to get to fifteen percent, it should be on the receipt…” That sounds clunky, but he makes it sing.

Hornsby collaborates with songwriter Chip DeMatteo on about half the songs here, including the title track, which effectively tells the story of meeting back up with one’s rehab group. Kicker line: “I need a drink at my rehab reunion.” He also works with Robert Hunter on “Tropical Cashmere Sweater,” a very Hunter-esque story. “TSA Man” is Hornsby’s gentle slap at airport security – the narrator of this tune loves the extra attention he gets in pat-downs. And sweet closer “Celestial Railroad” brings Mavis Staples aboard to send the record off in style.

But perhaps my favorite thing here is a recasting of “The Valley Road,” a song that is nearly 30 years old. It was a hit for Hornsby and the Range in 1988, and here he reclaims it, stripping it of the canned drums and synthesizers and giving it the organic sheen it always should have had. It’s a rustic song of lost innocence, and I like this version better than the one I’ve been listening to for almost three decades. This says, to me, that Rehab Reunion’s dulcimer experiment is an unqualified success. It’s a strange choice for Hornsby, but on this evidence, the right one. While I’m sure he’ll be back to making me gasp in awe at his piano playing soon, I’m loving this right now.

* * * * *

Sometimes the risks don’t pay off the way you hope they will. Unfortunately, I think that’s the case with Tegan and Sara’s turn to synth-pop.

The Quin sisters, formerly sharp guitar-rockers, made this curious transformation three years ago on Heartthrob, and have now doubled down on it with their eighth album, Love You to Death. And I would love to love this to death, but it’s not easy. The record is a mere 31 minutes, and the sisters appear to have given the whole thing over to Greg Kurstin of The Bird and the Bee. I adore Kurstin, but he plays every instrument on here – the Quins merely sing, as if they’re pop stars just showing up for work.

The Quins did, at least, write all the songs (some in collaboration with Kurstin), and the lyrics are sometimes as delightfully subversive as ever. “Boyfriend” is about a woman trying to get her girlfriend to acknowledge her: “I don’t wanna be your secret anymore.” Mostly, though, these are radio-ready songs of desire and devotion. “BWU” is probably the most romantic: “Save your first and last dance for me, save your first and last born for me… I stop the clock to be with you, just to be with you…” There isn’t much here that you wouldn’t find on a typical pop record, though.

So this is where we are. Beyonce has made one of the strongest, most moving albums of the year, and Tegan and Sara have given us half an hour of synthetic fluff. I appreciate that diving in and fully immersing themselves in this style is a risk, and I don’t deny that some of Love You to Death is catchy and fun. But I remember albums like So Jealous and The Con, and I can scarcely believe these are the same Quin sisters. That’s the thing with changing your artistic identity: it has to work. It has to be better than what you’re leaving behind, or at least as good. It shouldn’t make me nostalgic for the old sound. And I’m afraid that’s about all Love You to Death does for me.

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Next week, Starflyer 59 and a few others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.