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Culture in Context

Five British Folk Bands to Listen to Besides Mumford & Sons

It’s no secret that one of the world’s biggest bands will be headlining at the Hollywood Bowl this Saturday. Those Biola folksters lucky enough to score tickets to Mumford & Sons will line seats galore at the historic venue, singing along to the banjo-plucking, soul-searching U2-equivalent of this generation. But we’re all adults here. So let’s just take a step back from all the radio play and explosive popularity to acknowledge that the band’s music isn’t as perfect as some would hope.

The chord patterns and song structures can become repetitive, the lyrics a little overly sentimentalized. Even readers who would defend the band against such wanton critiques have to acknowledge a simple fact that Biola kids sometimes disregard: You can’t only listen to Mumford & Sons. Here are five British folk bands to fill in the space for when Mr. Mumford’s growl grows a little grating on the ears.

One. Frightened Rabbit.

Recently out with a new EP is Frightened Rabbit. The Scottish brogue of front man Scott Hutchinson packs more emotion in one syllable than Mumford can conjure up in an entire chorus. There’s something uniquely weatherbeaten and worldly about the heartache-centered music this band creates. Their youth channels into an angular, attacking punk energy which filters through the great complexity of human emotion to stir heartstrings unfailingly. Frightened Rabbit rarely settles on hope or sentiment as the backbone of their songs, choosing lament over jubilation many times over. Start with their 2008 release, “The Midnight Organ Fight,” for a taste of what they have to offer.

Two. Laura Marling.

Next comes Laura Marling, the genesis point for many a story of dramatic, banjo-centered drama. Mumford actually got his start backing Miss Marling on percussion, while she had formerly sang backup vocals on early Noah and the Whale recordings. Despite — or perhaps because of — leaving Noah’s lead singer and former romantic interest Charlie Fink to begin a doomed relationship with Mumford, she’s also managed to put out three striking records filled with musical diversity and feminine self-assurance. Her first recordings were released when she was only 16 and she sings, writes and plays with the wise clarity of someone far beyond her years. Give “I Speak Because I Can” first listening privileges to get yourself acquainted with her songwriting finesse.

Three. Noah & the Whale.

If we disregard their last album, filled with fun but cheesy electronic “experimentation,” Noah and the Whale stands out as another Grade A band that has fallen unjustly into the periphery because of Mumford mania. Their most famous song, “5 Years Time,” could get the serotonin pumping through Thom Yorke on a bad day. Their sophomore release, “The First Days of Spring,” is a breakup album par excellence. It takes its lyrical cues from Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” but maintains an orchestral sound from another world that hasn’t really been duplicated or matched since. If you’re up for a good cry, it’s well worth the listen.

Four. Cherbourg.

Cherbourg is the most ignored and neglected band on this list. Their short career put out two four-song EPs and one single, but if this limited output doesn’t leave you begging for more, please phone an audiologist. Their songs weep, rail, calm and upset with perfect pitch. “Shine” is one of the most painfully sad songs ever written and it’d be a wonderful place to start should you wish to journey down the rabbit hole they opened for but a moment.

Five. Johnny Flynn.

Rounding out the list is Johnny Flynn, the strategist behind the eventual British folk invasion. Before anyone else, Flynn took his diction as a former Shakespearean actor and transitioned it into classic, fingerpicked, lyrically adept ruminations on any subject you could hope for. He sings like an old professor whose expertise is the ways of the human heart. “A Larum,” his debut album, remains the best place to begin.

So listen away, Biola brethren. There are many more acoustic guitars to be danced along to.

Your Turn.  Post a Comment

  1. Ken Stewart

    Sadly, Matthew and the Atlas was left of this list. There are a "must listen" band for those into euro-folk. Matthew and the Atlas could be best described as a cross between Ray LaMontagne and Mumford. November 5, 2012

  2. Tyler Davis

    Great post, Mack! Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling have been staples on my iPod for years now. I'm glad biola is finally getting exposed to them. November 9, 2012

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