Thursday, October 11, 2012

Every lonely heart could use an honest song...

A discussion of the summer of 2011, musical connection, entertainment criticism, 
and The Dangerous Summer's War Paint

One year, three months, five days, and twelve hours ago (give or take a couple minutes), I sat down for my first listen to The Dangerous Summer's War Paint. It was one of my most anticipated records of the year, and right from the first instant that the title track's thick wall of guitars burst out of my headphones, I knew it was something special. It was the album that would go on to claim my album of the year title, the album that would dominate my summer playlist and define almost every vestige of my life. Today, I put that album on for the first time in a month or so, and everything still felt the same: just like I thought it would, it took me back to that summer season. It transported me back to countless reflective night drives, moments with friends or with the girl I love, to performances and beach days and times spent with family. In short, it encapsulated what my life was in 2011, and that's something I will always cherish. I always make myself wait at least a year before I "officially" place an album on my all time favorites list, but doing that for War Paint has almost felt like a chore. Every time I've listened to it in the past year and a quarter, since that first night that it found its way to me, its resonated more than any other album in recent memory. But now that the requisite year has passed, I feel completely confident in what I'm about to say: that the perfect score I gave this album was more than deserved and that it has at last found its way into the very top tier of my music listening experience...all the way into my top five.

But the elevation of War Paint to a place alongside the four albums that I have called favorites since 2009 or so (Springsteen's Born to Run, Butch Walker's Letters, Jimmy Eat World's Futures, and Jack's Mannequin's Everything in Transit, in that order) is only the tip of the iceberg for how fondly I remember last summer, and most of that is due to how impossibly splendid the soundtrack was. Of the albums I placed in my top ten last December, eight of them had found me in the heat of the summer, somewhere between the time I drove triumphantly away from my sophomore year of college and the day I embarked towards my penultimate one. Those albums managed to supply soundtrack to every kind of emotion and situation, from sunsoaked pop splendor (Matt Nathanson's Modern Love) to the bittersweet feeling of summer's dwindling (Charlie Simpson's Young Pilgrim), from the massive excitement I felt as I drove to pick my girlfriend up at the airport after some time away (Mat Kearney's Young Love) all the way to the loud and brash but surprisingly tender rock 'n' roll record that played as I drove away from it all (Butch Walker's The Spade). It was albums like those (not to mention late-night slowburns from Bon Iver, The Damnwells, or Mansions) that made last year my favorite music year in recent memory: a flawless summer soundtrack, with one of my all-time favorite albums leading the charge.

This past summer brought me a lot of great and meaningful music too. The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten striking through the hottest days of the year to become an anthemic badge of honor; Japandroids' Celebration Rock blaring from my car speakers at full volume, whether on carefree summer afternoons or late nights near the end of the season; John Mayer's Born and Raised kicking things off in splendor, or Yellowcard's Southern Air serenading the poetic finale to what was probably my last summer in my hometown. But for as many unforgettable moments as there were, nothing ever became a War Paint-like soundtrack. Maybe that's because the season was so entirely different than the last one: my girlfriend was gone for over a month, away in Colorado at a Graduate program, and when she finished, it was off to start a job, a life, a new world. That meant that I was spending less time in the car, with fewer late night drives or sunset cruises to let these albums really sink in the same way that War Paint once had. I was also working my own jobs, spending six days a week putting in hours for a marketing company, writing for a magazine, or performing shows at my local dinner theater. I would turn to the music at the end of long days or late nights, but for the most part, I was spending less time with it.

I've often thought that how an album hits you--how much you love it, how long it stays with you--depends entirely on when it comes into your life. Perhaps that's an exaggeration, since a lot of it also has to do with the music at hand, but I actually think the "objective" elements are a lot less important in the long run. That's why I try to inject a little bit of my personal story into my music criticism, at least when it comes to the artists and albums that are really important to me. Part of the reason Roger Ebert is such a renowned film critic is that he spends a lot of time in his reviews not just talking about the film, but also about his personal reaction to it. I think the first time I ever realized that was during my junior year of high school, when Ebert's review of Martin Scorsese's film Goodfellas appeared in the textbook for my A.P. Language & Composition class. Why was it that, in a book of literary essays and poetry, this one piece of entertainment criticism found is place? That became quickly evident as I read, because Ebert doesn't kick off his review by talking about a filmmaker or a rating or even about the gangster film genre. No, he begins it by talking about himself:

"For two days after I saw Martin Scorsese's new film, "GoodFellas," the mood of the characters lingered within me, refusing to leave. It was a mood of guilt and regret, of quick stupid decisions leading to wasted lifetimes, of loyalty turned into betrayal. Yet at the same time there was an element of furtive nostalgia, for bad times that shouldn't be missed, but were."

That opening paragraph took my breath away. The idea of relating the emotions of a work of art to one's self, to personal moods and experiences and memories, resonated with me on a purely primal level, and I have, largely, been writing in a similar manner ever since. That's why, when I reviewed War Paint towards the end of last summer, I focused on the personal context rather than the musical nuances of what is, on the surface, a fairly straightforward emotional pop-punk record. That's why, when I compiled my end-of-the-year list for 2011, most of the entries blended notes about the songs with explanations of how those songs impacted me. For me, music has always been, first and foremost, about the visceral connections I form with it, and there are few albums more visceral than War Paint. So yes, it might only be a year and three months after the fact (already?!), and many may deride this band and write them off for all of the dramatic shenanigans its members have be involved with in the past year, but there's no other way I can describe this album other than to call it one of my favorite albums of all time. I do believe it's earned that classification.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Wallflowers - Glad All Over

The Wallflowers - Glad All Over
Columbia Records, 2012
Four stars

Next to the wailing harmonica and slamming screen door that kick start Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, few album introductions are as effective as the ringing guitar that heralds the arrival of The Wallflowers’ 1996 album Bringing Down the Horse. The song it belongs to, “One Headlight,” was where my whole big and messy obsession with music started, my first favorite song from my first favorite band, and 16 years later, it’s still in the upper echelons. The album remains in my all time top ten as well, a gorgeous array of steel guitars, ringing organ lines, and roots rock grandeur (and a true summer night staple) with lyrics that I could sing along to in my sleep. And somehow, as baffling as it seems now, those songs were making waves on the radio, too. But something happened after that album and the band fell out of the public consciousness as quickly as they had entered it. One particularly enlightened sports fan blamed the fall from grace on Springsteen himself, saying that, when Bruce joined Jakob Dylan and company onstage for “Headlight” at the 1997 VMAs, he “rediscovered his ability to rock” and turned the whole event into his own personal comeback, hijacking the ‘Flowers’ song “right out of their feeble hands” and crushing their spirits in the process.

Perhaps that was the case, but I would prefer to blame the band’s exit from the spotlight on the changing musical landscape. When The Wallflowers finally released the follow up to Horse in 2000 (called Breach), they could hardly have been further from what pop music had become. They were a folk-indebted classic rock band trying to survive in an age of boy band and pop princesses, and those recipes were never going to mix. Their next two albums, 2002’s Red Letter Days and 2006’s Rebel, Sweetheart, didn’t change that, remaining within the same roots rock wheelhouse where the band had always resided. But even though The Wallflowers never did evolve that much, I still loved them. Their songs were always deeply comforting and nostalgic for me: theirs was the kind of music I would put on at the end of a hard day or during some personal crisis. and it would whisk me off to the carefree days of my childhood without a second glance. More than any other band, save for perhaps the Counting Crows, The Wallflowers’ records were the ones I grew up on, and all of them remain incredibly important to me. Sweetheart, in particularly, is fantastic: a songwriting master-class that saw Jakob Dylan’s lyrical abilities reaching levels that reflected his heritage (his father is Bob Dylan, after all) and melodic strains that were unforgettable after a single listen.

For a long time, it seemed like Sweetheart would be their swan song. Dylan went solo, moving towards more overtly folk and country textures on a pair of records called Seeing Things and Women and Country, respectively. I enjoyed both, but for me, Dylan’s breathy rasp always sounded best with the full force of his band behind him, with electric instrumentation and the ringing surge of Rami Jaffee’s B3 organ serving as his accompaniment. So naturally, when I heard the band was pulling back together to record their sixth full-length (and their first album in six years), I was ecstatic. And while the result, called Glad All Over, rarely approaches the heights of its predecessor, it’s still hard for me to describe how happy I am to have these guys back.

When it dropped a few months back, first single “Reboot the Mission” made waves as a jarring shift for a band that listeners had always pretty much counted on to do some variation of a similar sound. Instead of a folk-y lilt, the song had a loud, harsh, Clash-esque drive to it, from the blatantly Brit-rock chorus to funky bassline to the retro guitar echo. Undoubtedly, Clash guitarist Mick Jones, (who guest stars on the song) had a lot to do with that direction (as does drummer Jack Irons, who, as Dylan notes in the song, "jammed with the mighty Joe Strummer" on his album Earthquake Weather), but his influence doesn't stop there. Glad All Over is louder, brasher, and more rock-based than any album in the band’s discography, from the groovy blues-stomp of opener “Hospitals for Sinners” to the throwback guitar solo on “It’s a Dream.” Sometimes the influence works perfectly, like on “Misfits and Lovers,” which surrounds a classic Jakob Dylan chorus with Jones’ sexy, freewheeling guitar riffs. Elsewhere it doesn’t work at all, like on the snoozer that is “The Devil’s Waltz,” a textbook case of filler material redeemed only slightly by another blistering guitar solo. Most of the time though, it’s a pleasure to hear the band sound so loose and spontaneous: these guys clearly know their way around a recording studio, and on Glad All Over they sound like a gang of seasoned vets.

But still, it’s the nostalgic nuggets, the songs that sound like they could have fit on Bringing Down the Horse or Breach that hit the closest to home. “First One in the Car” plays like the missing link between “6th Avenue Heartache” and “Bleeders,” the kind of gorgeous, organ-drenched mid-tempo rocker that Dylan has always been able to pull off at the most opportune moments. A steel guitar rings through “Constellation Blues” in chilling fashion, giving the song a spacious, road-trippin’ atmosphere that befits its penultimate placement perfectly. Dylan’s lyrics are in top form here, recalling his best and most poetic moments from Sweetheart and making me wish there were a few more traditional folk songs to delve into on this record. “My birthday’s in two months, I’ll be twenty-one/I am the second oldest to an only son/The third generation to carry a gun/I’ve got brown eyes like my mother does,” Dylan spits out early on, just one image in a series of vivid lyrical depictions that are all too easy to get lost in. And the wistful “Love is a Country” is the album’s highlight, a piece of full-bodied grandiosity that swells with acoustic guitars, echoes of pedal steel, and distant piano chords before it reaches a euphoric conclusion.

None of these songs reinvent the wheel: not the Clash-infused lead-single, not the Magic-era Springsteen-posturing (“It Won’t be Long (Till We’re Not Wrong Anymore)” or “Have Mercy on him Now”), and certainly not the traditional roots-rock approach of the album’s best songs. But The Wallflowers have always been a band that excelled at bringing new life to things we’d heard before, and that remains true on Glad All Over. It’s far from their best record and I might have expected a little bit more after a six year hiatus, but for my first favorite band, I’m willing to let a few things slide. Maybe Springsteen did break their spirits back in ‘97, but I prefer to believe that they gave him the exuberant rock ‘n’ roll experience he needed to realize how much he wanted to have the E-Street Band beside him once more. Either way, it’s great to see an outfit as tight as The Wallflowers still trucking, twenty years down the road from their debut and fifteen years past their last scrape with “relevance.” Here’s to another twenty more...even if that popularity never comes again.

Abandoned Pools - Sublime Currency

Abandoned Pools - Sublime Currency
Tooth & Nail Records, 2012
3.5 stars
"In the fabric of a very long enchantment
Will you wake me up from long sleep
You were my reflection
In a world abandoned
I will stitch back up our memories"

Writing the most gorgeous song of the year normally guarantees an artist and their album a spot on my year-end list, even if bits and pieces of that album don’t quite live up to it’s peak. Last year, Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean shifted back and forth between disappointment and triumph for me, but I also invariably found myself coming back to “Godless Brother in Love,” the album’s stunning highlight. Abandoned Pools (the moniker for singer/songwriter Tommy Walter) reaches a similar level of dreamy opulence on “From Long Sleep,” the penultimate track from his first album in seven years. Introduced by a wistful burn of steel guitar, the song builds into an resplendent duet between Walter and female singer/songwriter Paris Carney, and the result is magical. Occasionally, a song comes along that feels like a flight of the soul and this is absolutely one of them; there is no more obvious autumn soundtrack staple this year.

The rest of Sublime Currency, the third full-length from Walter’s project and the first since 2005, doesn’t quite reach those stratospheric heights, but that’s not to say there aren’t other worthwhile moments. Take the neon-drenched opening trio, a trifecta of glorious pop songs that evoke ‘80s arena rock and hair metal (“Sublime Currency”), make fascinating sonic decisions (“Hype is the Enemy”), or showcase heavenly vocal harmonies (“Unrehearsed”)—all against a backdrop of indelible choruses. Walter’s synth-heavy, new wave-inspired sound works perfectly in more conventional song structures like these ones, constructing webs of gorgeous, full-bodied texture that demand to serve as soundtrack for a nighttime drive. The record is slightly less successful when it reaches beyond its indie-pop groundings towards something more experimental. Meandering compositions like “In Silence” (a striking song about marriage) and the anticlimactic closer “In Shadows” (“From Long Sleep” is a perilously tough act to follow) display Walter’s knack for creating mood music, but don’t touch the euphoric heights of the record’s best songs.

But for listeners who have followed this scene for awhile, for those of us who have spent the last decade delving into every record we could get our hands on, there is a lot to love about Sublime Currency. Walter writes songs that are full of feeling and nostalgia, often recalling the work of artists who came before him (or those who were his label mates at Tooth & Nail the last time he made an album). “Autopilot” plays out like Beneath Medicine Trees-era Copeland, complete with a spiraling electric guitar outro to recall “California,” that album’s centerpiece cut. “Legionnaire,” one of the record’s darker, more challenging moments, wouldn’t have been out of place on a Mae record. And don’t be surprised if the aforementioned slices of new wave transport you back to the ‘80s revival that took place in 2004, to how it felt the first time a record like The Killers’ Hot Fuss came cascading out of your speakers and filled your room with synthesizers.

Make no mistake, Sublime Currency has a lot of musical sides to it: from M83-esque atmospherics to an alt-country duet that wouldn’t be out of place on a Civil Wars record, Walter covers an awful lot of musical ground here, and that versatility should be commended. That said, not all of his sides work: the second half is, for the most part, messy and self-indulgent. Some listeners will be able to get blissfully lost in the plethora of musical textures, but others will be left scratching their heads at the album’s scatterbrained intentions and bizarre left turns. Undoubtedly, Sublime Currency is at its best when at its most conventional, when Walter lets his pure melodies (and his magnetic voice) do the heavy lifting. When he lets his one-man-band showmanship cloud the arrangements, the display is a fascinating exhibition of talent, but one that also causes its songwriter to lose sight of the core qualities of his compositions. The end result is a record that feels distinctly like it was written in pieces over a long period of time rather than in one inspirational burst of creativity. And that’s fine: what else can we expect from a songwriter who we haven’t heard from in seven years? But one can’t help but wonder what would happen if Walter could (or would) channel the yearning emotion of his best songs, stuff like “From Long Sleep” here, or “Goodbye Song” from his sophomore record Armed to the Teeth, into a single cohesive record. He may not always hit the bullseye on Sublime Currency, but when he is at the top of his game, few are better.

Go Radio - Close the Distance

Fearless Records, 2012
Four stars

The second semester of my sophomore year of college was an exhausting, stressful, and disappointing time in my life. Between a grueling course schedule, a job I hated, the wearing presence of long distance in my relationship, and a growing realization that I was in the wrong major at perhaps the wrong university, I found myself counting the days to summer and freedom. I remember one Sunday, two or three weeks before the end of the school year, when the weather finally warmed up and summer, four months of time with my family, with the love of my life, and with a job I actually adored, felt like it was finally within my grasp. That night, I took an evening walk around campus and reveled in the crisp spring breeze, the wide open sky, and the smell of the trees and flowers finally in bloom. I can't recall whether it was deliberate or not, but the song that ended up soundtracking that nighttime stroll was "The Truth Is" from Go Radio's debut Lucky Street. The album as a whole always struck me as very hit or miss, and I've hardly come back to it at all since 2011, but its finale remains perfect. Songs don't get much more earnest than this one, but sometimes, pure conviction makes things work in ways that nothing else could. So when Jason Lancaster sang "And I would spend every night under the stars/To memorize the patterns both our heartbeats would make/It might stop me from shaking," I connected it to everything that was going on in my life at that moment. I thought of my memories from the previous summer, perhaps the greatest of my life, and I projected them onto my hopes for the upcoming one. That song was like the light at the end of the tunnel, a reminder that, as hard as things had gotten, good times were on the horizon.

The band's sophomore album, titled Close the Distance, channels that same kind of honest emotion into nearly every track. That will make it a target for people who don't appreciate the kind of heart-on-the-sleeve love songs that Lancaster writes, but it also results in a record that is more personal, thematic, and consistent than its predecessor, and with a more grandiose flair. Propulsive opener "I Won't Lie" is indicative of nearly every aspect of the album, from Lancaster's love-letter lyrics to his increased knack for pure hooks. "Baltimore" is even better, a bittersweet leaving song that builds to a bridge so climactic and indelible it's nearly impossible not to be swept up in its vortex. "I turned off the radio so that I could hear you breathe/And I could watch you sleep/And maybe in your dreams there could be me/So everybody turn down the lights/And forget the fact we're here tonight and tomorrow I'm leaving/'Cause tomorrow don't mean anything tonight," Lancaster belts, taking us back to dozens of our own memories and to the sense of finality that fills the air the night before a major departure. It's the last night of summer; it's spending precious moments with the people you love before you say goodbye, drive away, and start a chapter of your life; it's bidding farewell to your hometown, and Go Radio paint that portrait perfectly.

It's in generating those kinds of scenes and feelings where Close the Distance truly excels. Make no mistake, the band doesn't show off an exceptional amount of versatility here, but with records like these, that doesn't really matter. It's all about the feeling, the emotion, the atmosphere, and in those senses, this record is a tour-de-force. At its core, Close the Distance is an album about separation, and its best tracks burn with a yearning urgency. If "Baltimore" is the last night in town, lead-off single "Collide" is the anthem that plays in the car as you drive away the following morning. "We've both got way too much ahead/To worry about what we've left behind," the chorus goes, a bittersweet statement filled with conflicting emotions of anticipation and regret, pain at the goodbye and excitement for what's to come. The title track is similarly arena-sized, thriving on a sunsoaked aesthetic that floats somewhere between summer and autumn. Lancaster has never sounded better, his voice soaring to the heights of Patrick Stump and wielding the emotional force of The Dangerous Summer's AJ Perdomo. The euphoric "Things I Don't See" is another highlight, with a homerun of a chorus that evokes atmosphere in the way that this band does so well. "And if you wait a little longer/I'll meet you there come June, at the corner of July," Lancaster sings: summer only just ended, but songs like this one already have me yearning for its return.

Close the Distance loses a bit of its punch when the band trades in guitars for piano, though that's not to say that there isn't a certain amount of charm in hearing them tackle a pure pop song like "Go to Hell" or a raw, bare bones ballad like "What if you Don't." The former feels a tad out of place thematically, landing as a bombastic kiss-off rather than fitting with the lovelorn, longing uncertainty of the rest of the album. Adversely, the latter works better on paper than it does in execution, as Lancaster's vocals just sound more at home with fuller textures swelling around him. Beyond that song, the band keeps generally within in their wheelhouse of mid-tempo pop-rock, keeping the energy at a consistent level and delivering massive chorus after massive chorus. That all holds true until the end, when the titanic power ballad that is "Hear Me Out" drifts through the proceedings like a fall breeze to carry the album away. "Watching as the leaves fall down, the colors where we used to run and play/Another year's flown by I fear, It seems to be too soon the seasons change," Lancaster croons during the first verse, finally embracing the autumnal feel that his been lurking on the fringes of these songs throughout. The chorus is full-on cinematic, Lancaster's voice gliding, straining, and breaking over the build. The song begs for a climactic guitar solo that it sadly never gets, but just as "The Truth Is" was the perfect finale to Lucky Street, so too is "Hear Me Out" ideal as the endpoint for its follow-up.

Almost three and the half years ago, The Dangerous Summer's Reach for the Sun came into my life and served as soundtrack for my last weeks of high school, the summer that followed, and the life-change brought on by the first months of college. When I listen to that album, it still plays like a snapshot of who I was and where my life was going at that time. Just recently, Yellowcard's Southern Air became one of my favorite records of the year by striking the perfect chord with me as I neared the end of my last summer in my hometown. Close the Distance lands somewhere between the two, both sonically and emotionally. Like both of those bands, Go Radio don't write songs with a lot of nuanced musical textures or sonic variation. Rather, they go straight for pathos, aiming their nostalgic lyrics and deeply emotive themes directly at the life soundtracks of the people who fall for this kind of music time and time again. It won't work for everyone: music with this level of earnestness never does. But for many, Close the Distance will resonate on a higher level, whether it finds them working through a long distance relationship or moving onto another chapter of their lives. For me, this record sounds like something coming full circle. Just as Reach for the Sun encapsulated where my life was when I entered college, Close the Distance plays like the record that wants to assume that role as I exit it. Only time will tell on that count, but for now, it remains one of the biggest surprises of the year for me, a collection of songs that hits all of the right emotional notes and does so with intense relatability and palpable pop sensibilities.

Mumford & Sons - Babel

Mumford & Sons - Babel
Island/Glassnote, 2012
3.5 stars

After this year’s American Idol coronation song (“Home,” by the unfortunately named Phillip Phillips) pretty much rewrote Mumford & Sons’ previous hits in a more uplifting fashion, it was clear they were becoming a substantial force in the music world. And why not? Their debut, 2009’s Sigh No More spawned a bunch of hits and sold five million copies. It was also pretty easy to like, a superfluous but well-executed collection of folk-pop tunes that made listeners feel rugged and indie without asking them to venture too far beyond the boundaries of conventional radio rock or singer/songwriter fare. The songs had a pleasant, winterish feel to them that fell somewhere between The Fray and Fleet Foxes, and the bombastic tendencies of the production (provided by Markus Dravs, a guy with a proven reputation of making “big” records like Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs or Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto) gave the songs an arena-bound energy.

So why, then, did so many people absolutely abhor this band? To be fair, they got a lot of hyperbolic love too, transforming somewhere along the line into the next “frat boy” sensation (for the same people who worship Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, and O.A.R.). I personally could never figure out how the music at hand managed to inspire such passionate feelings in either direction. As far as I was concerned, you could do a lot worse than Mumford & Sons, but you could also do a lot better. They were innocuous, a lesser version of the folk bands they imitated, but they weren’t the villainous, “folk-rock-answer-to-Nickelback” figures that some of their fiercest detractors accused them of being.

All of this holds true for Babel, their highly anticipated sophomore album, which is, for better or worse, pretty much the exact same record as Sigh No More. The words and literary references have been changed around, but on the whole, Babel follows the same form as its predecessor, and numerous songs are almost blatantly written in the same tradition as past ones. The most obvious example is “Broken Crown,” essentially a sped up version of Sigh’s “I Gave You All,” but listeners will hear familiar echoes regularly throughout these 12 tracks. Most of the time though, it follows the mantra of any blockbuster Hollywood sequel: do everything you did the first time, just do it bigger. That motto is immediately prevalent in the album’s introduction, which positions three rousing numbers in a row. “Babel” opens the album in a similar vein to the title track from Sigh No More, only rather than building the song from Appalachian vocal harmonies, the band just races out of the gate. We get the furiously strummed acoustic guitar, the banjo licks, and the strong percussion backdrop to fill things out before Marcus Mumford lends his signature vocals to the mix. He strains on the high notes and whispers at the quieter sections, in the same way we’ve heard him do before. We’ll hear it again, too.

Make no mistake, Babel is the not an evolution. We don’t get any of the experimentation or bloated self-importance that so often characterizes post-breakthrough albums, and while that frees the guys from the danger of a sophomore slump (how can it be a “slump” when it’s the same formula?), it also means that Babelprobably isn’t going to win many new fans. That’s okay though: it was evident from the day they released “I Will Wait” as a single that they were of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” camp. The fact that the song is predictable and derivative of their old style doesn’t really matter. It rolls along with a rollicking country lilt and boasts a truly gorgeous bridge section, building in a manner that makes these guys sound like what U2 would have been if they had started out as a folk act rather than a punk band with arena rock ambitions. The group, consisting of Mumford, Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall, and Ted Dwane (all of them multi-instrumentalists) dominates these arrangements and sounds as crisp and clean as any set of musicians in the mainstream today. Even if the songs they’re playing aren’t terribly complex, it’s hard not to at least passingly enjoy what they do here.

Album highlight “Ghosts That We Knew” is a gorgeous torch song that recalls Sigh No More’s closing track, “After the Storm,” and it’s hard to see why it doesn’t carry the album out here. “But the ghosts that we knew will flicker from view/And we'll live a long life,” sings Mumford in the refrain, a wistful tone accenting his cryptically nostalgic lyrical craft. It’s the kind of song you would expect to hear around campfires on late autumn nights, the sort of gorgeous elegy your uncle pulls out, in a moment of clarity, at the end of a rambunctious night with the family. Perhaps that’s what a lot of people hate about this band: they feel conventional, like your friend’s brother’s folk band that jammed a few nights a week during college and played bars every once in awhile. But that’s also their greatest strength: they sound like they could be your friends, your family. Their songs ring with truth and honesty and simplicity, with lyrics that sometimes don’t make a lick of sense, but which are fun to sing along to anyway. In that sense, the grand production feels a bit out of place, like Dravs’ spotless work doesn’t really fit the character of the band. But they still find the intimacy in songs like “Lovers’ Eyes,” even with a horn section that barrels in four minutes through, or the bare-bones acoustic work of “Reminder,” which plays like an interlude at first, but distinguishes itself on repeat listens. At moments like these, Babel feels like home.

Babel is not a great album, but it doesn’t really need to be. The songs are too similar, and the album loses its way a bit as it goes (though the fantastic “Below My Feet” adds some much needed climactic heft in the penultimate position). But within these songs, there is a band with a palpable love for what they are doing, and even if they missed the boat on widespread musical respect three years ago, I can still appreciate them for that. Frankly, I’m happy there’s someone making this kind of music in the mainstream, and even happier that there seems to be a market for it. Maybe someday, folk music will worm its way back into the public consciousness, but until then, Mumford & Sons are sort of functioning as the champions of an age gone by. That’s not a bad role to play though, and based on my recent experiences with top 40 radio and the deplorable noise that my roommates put on at parties, you really can do a hell of a lot worse.