Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Avett Brothers vs. Mumford & Sons

Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers. They're seemingly the same -- folk bands that weave influences of rock, punk, and the blues. They use the same instruments: guitar, stand up bass, drums, banjo, mandolin, fiddle -- anything you can find at a yardsale in the Smoky Mountains. But are also very different bands. One, an international pop behemoth. The other, a cerebral and dark band atop a massive cult and critical following.

Mumford & Sons outside their antique store.

Whether you know it or not, like them or not, or even care or not, these bands are quickly becoming mainstays in our Cultural Vernacular -- especially after they shared the stage with Bob Dylan at this year's Grammys and with Mumford & Son's debut album sitting pretty on top the Billboard Top 200 for quite some time now. Which one you choose says more than you think it does.

Avett Brothers and pink rabbit mascot.

Mumford & Sons is an energetic, rockish, and catchy Americana/folk band from West London. They're album, Sigh No More, has reached the top of the charts in three different continents (North America, Europe, and Australia). They're relatively new, forming in 2007, they toured for a while, made an EP, and cut a full length album in 2008 (Sigh No More), released it in 2009, and rocked the world with Bob Dylan at the Grammys in 2011. After their performance of "The Cave", social media was abuzz with Mumford & Sons hype, as a great "break out artist". Despite their first single, "Little Lion Man", having been around around the blogosphere since 2008.

The Avett Brothers started out as a rock/punk band called Nemo in North Carolina. (Nemo, besides being a popular, animated clown fish, is Latin for "nobody"). The two brothers, Seth and Scott Avett started an acoustic/folk side project aptly titled The Avett Brothers in 2000. The brothers quickly rose above their rock band associates and garnered a quick -- and southern -- reputation as an incredibly passionate, energetic live band with intelligent and challenging studio albums. A cult following ensued. They started to gain mainstream attention, and critical acclaim, when their song "If It's the Beaches" aired during an episode of Friday Night Lights.

Still the question remains: what's the difference? Or -- more importantly -- why should I care?

“If It’s the Beaches” written by Scott and Seth Avett from Gleam

Don’t say it’s over
Cause that’s the worst news
I cold hear I swear that I will
Do my best to be here
Just the way you like it
Even though it’s hard to hide
Push my feelings all aside
I will rearrange my plans
And change for you

If I could go back
That’s the first thing I would do
I swear that I would
Do my best to follow through
Come up with a master plan
A homerun hit a winning stand
A guarantee and not a promise
That I’d never let your love
Slip from my hands

If it’s the beaches
If it’s the beaches' sands you want
Then you will have them
If it’s the mountains bending rivers
Then you will have them
If it’s a wish to run away
Then I will grant it
Take whatever you think of
While I go gas up the truck
Lock the old love letters up
We will read them when we forgot why we left here

The Avett Brother's specificity is disarming, almost intruding. It’s as if we are invited into a very private conversation that we're familiar with. It’s clearly the story of a man holding on to a relationship – of any sort – by any means. The Avett Brothers have presented us with a protagonist.

The first verse is our protagonist pleading. He’s willing to change, to bend and break and “push his feelings all aside” for this person. He is a man on his knees.

The second verse presents why he’s in this predicament. “If I could go back…” is all we need. There was clearly a point, earlier on, where this man made the mistake of not communicating his love during a time when someone needed it most. Or, even worse, taking the reciprocation for granted. “A guarantee and not a promise/That I’d never let your love/Slip from my hands.”

The last verse ends with a glint of hope, that at some point during this dark journey they embark on they will read their old love letters and realize exactly what brought them together in the first place. Using nostalgia as a glue.

This is an extremely personal song. A song of redemption and love, flaws and mistakes. This song is a story.

Bringing punk rock energy to folk. 

Musically speaking, it’s gorgeous, even chilling. The soft strum of acoustic guitars, the lonely violin, and a piano as heavy as a set of weights; it’s as if every note cuts a small hole where the song can flow, like a river flooding dry creek beds.

Art has two basic functions – to either expose the culture, or expose the artist. Some artists become zeitgeists, expressing their culture through their medium. Others, put their heart on their sleeve and inform the world what’s going with them. They mold and chip away at certain personal aspects until they have the best representation of themselves, and then present it to the world.

This what the Avett Brothers have done.

"The Cave" by Mumford & Sons from Sigh No More

It's empty in the valley of your heart

The sun, it rises slowly as you walk

Away from all the fears

And all the faults you've left behind

The harvest left no food for you to eat

You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see

But I have seen the same

I know the shame in your defeat

But I will hold on hope

And I won't let you choke

On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain

And I will change my ways

I'll know my name as it's called again

Cause I have other things to fill my time

You take what is yours and I'll take mine

Now let me at the truth

Which will refresh my broken mind

So tie me to a post and block my ears

I can see widows and orphans through my tears

I know my call despite my faults

And despite my growing fears

But I will hold on hope

And I won't let you choke

On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain

And I will change my ways

I'll know my name as it's called again

So come out of your cave walking on your hands

And see the world hanging upside down

You can understand dependence

When you know the maker's land

So make your siren's call

And sing all you want

I will not hear what you have to say

Cause I need freedom now

And I need to know how
To live my life as it's meant to be

And I will hold on hope

And I won't let you choke

On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain

And I will change my ways

I'll know my name as it's called again

The lyrics scream – almost literally – of change, redemption, and personal victory. Existential elements that require serious self-awareness, combining these types of epiphanies to an allusion of leaving Plato’s Cave. It takes knowledge – something brutal and painful – to create the conflict needed for this kind of self conscious breakthrough. “Cause I need freedom now/And I need to know how/To live my life as it’s meant to be”.

But, unlike the Avett Brothers, their lyrics lack a certain amount of specificity and personality. In fact, they maintain a “just right” balance of nebulous and thematic wording. We understand what Mumford is talking about – we get it, we’ve been there -- but we don’t get the intimacy we did with Avett. This is definitely by design.

“And I’ll find strength in pain/And I will change my ways",  are words that clearly ring with crisis, conflict, and triumph, but their simplicity and lack of Identity allow us to fill it with our Identity.

It’s as if we wrote it.

Sigh No More ...

Which is a very smart move on the their part as far as commerciality is concerned. This turns Mumford & Sons into our band. They have that perfect blend of epic optimism with allusions to a vague angst. This balance – a lyrical game, so to speak – is akin to the likes of:

Britney Spears, Madonna, and Lady Gaga.

It’s just enough to get a certain theme across while not getting too intimate. It’s enough for us to relate to it without being challenged. It’s remarkably uplifting, extremely catchy, and makes us feel smarter and better about ourselves.

The Mumford & Sons have created folk-pop.

This is also shines through their image. Their previous tour – with hipster demi-Gods Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes – was spent on a train traveling around the country. They would play their shows then jam at random public places during the night -- like 19th century musical vagabonds making thousands of dollars a night. 

The extravagance really kicks in when they get back to their train to an open bar and a jam cart. Even Jake Gylenhaal jumped on board in LA.

Mumford & Sons is the bloated, commercialized, cash cow of Americana. They have the music chops, lyrical skills, and presence to be a major "niche" pop star -- which is good for them.

It's clear that the two bands are dopplegangers on the rise. Although Mumford may have had more commercial success than the Avett Brothers, the Avett Brothers' critical acclaim, cult following, and creative history make them a more mature band.

This doesn't -- necessarily -- mean they're a band for "mature" audiences, but a band that's been around the block. A band that's earned the awards and acclaim they've gotten. A band you can trust is writing -- and performing -- from the heart. That challenge us, and themselves, in their songs. Whereas, Mumford is a band that hit a homerun on their first swing -- which is great -- but they don't have the sense of vindication that the Avetts have earned.

In the simplest sense, Mumford is a band that will lift you up, inspire you, bring you to your best and cheer you on. They are a much needed band in our trying times for our "trying" generation.

But, the Avett Brothers is a band that will make you a better person. And that's needed all the time.


Anonymous said...

WHAT A CROCK... I'm a HUGE Avett's fan as well as Mumford and Sons... basically all this, is ramblings of an idiot, why the Cave, try dissecting Roll away your stone, Awake my soul or more so Dustbowl dance??? The songs that the TRUE fans adore(the Cave and L.lion man are 2 songs that are overplayed, get that)
To even compare them to Madonna of Lady Gaga... c'mon son... I can tell you have OBVIOUSLY NOT seen them live.. I just saw the Avett Brothers, seen em many times love em, agree w/ alot of what you said there then ya crapped on yourself... YOU CAN"T COMPARE THESE TWO BANDS???

the_nuggs said...

BTW wanted to make sure I wasnt annonymous...

Ginger said...

Thanks for sharing this. I am a long time Avett fan and enjoy Mumford as well. I had this weird experience watching the Grammy performance with Dylan though. It was almost as if I felt the need to pledge my allegiance to the Brothers over Mumford. And that's really silly, right? I can like both of them, can't I? Anyhoo, I think you've helped me to begin to sort out why I appreciate both of them just on different levels. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Having seen Avett live on an number of occasions I think you are spot on. The refernce to Gaga and other pop idols is a valid comaprison and shows Avett as pure to their craft and success has been a by-product and not an initial goal.

Great insite, thanks.

tommyNC said...

Great read. I always felt the same about M&S but couldn't quite put my finger on it. Good band that is riding the tidal wave of hype. Can't wait for the new Avett Bros album and the third Gleam.

Jack Wilkie said...

Great post. I think you captured both bands very well. Mumford & Sons is a great band, but they don't have the depth to get to your soul. Also, they are very formulaic in the slow starts that pick up toward the middle. You won't see that with Scott and Seth.

omajan09 said...

Comparing Mumford & Sons to Brittany Spears? Wow, that was low. An original thought hasn't came out of her mouth her entire life. This article made me sad. Why does one have to be better than the other? And how did we feel about The Avett Brothers when they had only been going for a few years? There are some early videos of TAB that I find very difficult to watch. Both bands have taken different routes to their goal. Lets just leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

Obviously you have heard thier other songs. The ones that are different from the cave. Try Lovers Eyes or Home and then Come back and say they arent life changing.

Anonymous said...

these bands both suck and sound exactly the same. mumford's is just a slightly more boring and repetitive ripoff of the avett.

boring formula=boring result

typical popular crap, again and again. gruel for the masses.

Anonymous said...

How could mumford even look at the avett bros in the face

Anonymous said...

I am a huge Avett fan and I cringe every time they are compared to that crap-pop-pseudo-folk-blah band! The Avetts have character and genuine, honest emotion; they seem in no way manufactured or fake. (Plus they're just more talented musically and lyrically, in my opinion...). I totally agree that they have the ability to make their audience better people, I like to think that they've had that effect on me. Saying that the Avetts are anything like Mumford is as preposterous as saying the Beatles are like nickelback.

Anonymous said...

Here's the difference: Mumford and Sons broke through first and became well known and started selling a lot of records and concert tickets and making a lot of money for their associated managers, record label people, lawyers, etc. Then another management/A&R/label type of conglomeration witnessed all of this happening and said: "find me the American version of Mumford and Sons so we can cash in on this". Voila, all the sudden two brothers who've been under the radar for 13 years get a good deal and a ton of promotion and here they are. (heck, there's even a Seth Avett Signature Model Guitar from the Martin Guitar Company).

Evan S. said...

Except, The Avett Brothers never really had major success like Mumford and Sons did. Most people that I talk to had heard of The Avett Brothers before M&S came out. What happened is that The Avett Brothers got the attention of Rick Rubin.

Dawn said...

Wish you had changed fonts back after quoting lyrics: would have been a much easier read!

I love both bands, but lean towards the Avetts because they are just so raw and true, lyrically and with their crazy music/styles. More difficult, but ultimately more satisfying for me than Mumford & Son.

Thanks for such a great article!