Coffee Cup Reading: Old Tymey Vests

27 Apr

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[band picture or turn of the century labourers? You decide.]

“I think people think it’s cool to pretend you live in a 1920’s work camp and eat beans from a tin that you cook over a bonfire (in your Brooklyn apartment). I want to know what ole tymey store all these bands are buying their dressup outfits from. There has to be some sort of Gap for the throngs of idiots who want to pretend they make their own clothes. Somehow wearing one of these outfits makes listening to your really bad music acceptable for people.” – Zak Pashak, founder of Sled Island,  CEO of Detroit Bikes

I’ve been thinking a lot about hipsters lately. Probably more than I should be thinking about them. And not your card carrying, green pant wearing, gypsy jewelry toting, Coachella ambling, hipster. But that unique strain of hipster my friend Zak describes so well, which seems to thrive in the music halls and mp3 downloads of our time. And on the streets too – a form of fashion favoured by certain bands and people – you’ve seen them, you’ve known them, maybe you are them. Whole mediums glorify and lampoon the modern day hipster; Vancouver and Portland are virtual champions of a sadistic visual sport home-brewed in their cities.

And Mumford and Sons are certainly the patron saints, or at very least, the soundtrack to this scene. I remember the first time I heard and saw them….a carefully constructed live performance in a rustic library:

And just look at this video – why the fuck are they in a field with an accordion playing?

But five years ago, the look, the sound, the soul, was a revelation. A startling back to the future lightning bolt of promise – 4 pioneers of music sent to save us from our indulgent selves, tilling our plastic pop wasteland with the harvest of hearty grains and wholesome music, just like our pappies listened to. How could a voice as gravelly as lead singer Marcus Mumford’s transcend? Why did they have so much god-damned gusto? When was the last time we had heard a banjo in a pop song? And where did they get those great haircuts and shirts?

Then came the inevitable growing groundswell of support, first in the alternative corners, and eventually, into the mainstream with Grammy fame and success. A second album followed that traded on the quiet and loud aesthetic of the first, with no new ideas; the clear harbinger of a band drowning in its self-created surf. Even their greatest moment was a subdued cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’; the ideal muse for Marcus’ voice, majestically accompanied by the sublime slide guitar of guest Jerry Douglas:

But now, just like with everything that the mainstream devours, what little original novelty that may have existed with the Mumfords and their hipster movement has been exposed, their secret sauce reverse engineered. Maybe it’s only a matter of time until the Dr.Mindbenders at the giant record labels learn how to commoditize and mass produce their sound and image to create the most feared and reviled Frankensteins of our age: the Boy Band. I can see the lineup now: the pretty folk boy hipster who dresses like a depression-era factory worker, though somehow is still impeccably clean shaven; the bad boy rummy with a stogie in his mouth and a heart of gold behind the coal stained hands, and the angel voiced lead singer sporting a comically thick beard that nests 2 robins (they help with harmonies). And we shall call them: “The New Deal”.

And now, five years on, I view it all with a fascinated curiosity. Amazed at how the masses can be swept up by a heady Prohibition-era cocktail of good looks, hooks, and feigned earnestness that only a banjo and hand stitched northwestern lumber mill shirt can provide. The Calgary Mumford show sold out in less than 5 minutes (true, many of those tickets were ‘purchased’ and immediately available for resale via Ticketmaster’s minion Stubhub – if that isn’t the evil conspiracy of our time, I don’t know what is.) But it’s happened before and it will happen again. The music machine keeps on churning, just like fashion keeps coming up with new designs that upholster a not so distant age. And sometimes the two collide in a wonderful meteor storm that is Mumford. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them; they play their own instruments and write their own songs; they seem to feel the heartache they feel. And maybe they will get over their difficult second album, have a difficult look in the mirror like the Boss once did, and settle into a comfortable rut in the road firmly fixed between the real and the oversold.

Mumford ain’t the first, and they ain’t the last – see: Peter Paul and Mary all the way down to Avett Brothers. Perhaps it’s like the immortal lines sung by Chris Murphy of Sloan: “It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans.” And if that’s true, maybe we hate a little of ourselves for being so fickle – falling hard for bands that we won’t care about as much as soon as the next one comes along, just like a forgotten dress in a deep closet that just doesn’t seem to capture the color of today.

We shouldn’t be surprised by all this. It permeates our society: the yearning for authenticity, for quality, for something real that you can rely on. That’s why retro will always be fashionable; our memories of olden times, recalled by way of the well-travelled road and well-worn sweater, is comfortable nostalgia. We chide the old timers in our families for speaking wistfully of simpler times, but us children of the 80s and 90s repeat the pattern (Nintendo is still more family fun than xbox). We trade and recycle decades and glorify the best tokens of those times. A fundamental guiding light of UnSung is to champion new bands that capture the classic sound of old without a sense of exploitation or veneer. Admittedly that is a pretty subjective line, and one that Mumford has hopscotched over. But there are some great bands out there who seem to fall on the right side of that line, even if they appear to fit the label:

The Tumbleweeds:

Shakey Graves:

Will they make it, find a larger audience, become mini-Mumfords, and then face a backlash when they are too popular to be cool? Only time will tell. I may have offended some hipsters or Mumford concert goers,  but hopefully I’ve just given them pause for thought. This isn’t a condemnation, but a comment, and I’m not holier than thou; I own maple brown glasses from Warby Parker, I often sport a ramshackle beard better appreciated in the backwoods of Montana, and one of my favorite possessions is a canvas jacket that looks like it’s from 1962. We’re all wanting to be hip so we’re not square. And isn’t everyone just trying to be Bob Dylan trying to be Woody Guthrie anyways?

We might as well sit back and enjoy the ride; those that strive for authenticity, those caught in the grip of fickle popularity, those just wanting to find a nice weathered shirt to go with their navy jeans and beat up loafers.

So like that old tymey vest, the penultimate ‘fashion before function’ assemblage, wear your allegiances with caution, for all can see them. And seek the pure of heart and sound; you may be led astray, but chances are, someone else has been there before you.

UPDATE MAY 21/13 – So I saw Mumford in concert last night. My verdict: The earnest head banging in the middle of banjo solos may have seemed a little over the top, but they seemed to have captured something that so many people adore – there were girls crying and drunk boys singing. Lovely patio lights that shone across the main floor. Everyone became electrified during Lion Man and I Will Wait, but there are still too many slow songs that killed any momentum – Mumford still needs to learn the lesson of U2 and Coldplay before them about the importance of a set list: take your audience on emotional ride for 2hrs, and they won’t forget it. Ironically enough, the best moment was their cover (another cover!) of I’m On Fire by Bruce Springsteen. And Marcus’ vest, it was lovely.

UPDATE AUGUST 5/13 – Take back everything I ever said about Mumford. Check out their new video taking the piss out of themselves (or at least granting comedians the right to take the piss out of themselves.) Well done, Mumford, well done.

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One Response to “Coffee Cup Reading: Old Tymey Vests”

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  1. Coffee Cup Reading: Return of the Conquerors of the World | UnsungPresents - September 9, 2013

    […] stars have magically aligned and the 5 biggest and best rock bands of our time (with apologies to everyone’s favorite folk minstrels) will be releasing new music, and keeping the home fires burning brightly! Today is a good day to […]

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