Written Better Elsewhere: Mumford and Sons vs. Frightened Rabbit

So, my good friend, Another J, just let me know about a piece on the Stereogum.com Deconstructing blog discussing earnestness, indie rock, and the difference between Mumford & Sons and Frightened Rabbit. (“Deconstructing: Frightened Rabbit, Macklemore, and the Perils of Earnestness”).  I like the post, not the least because it taps into the debate my brother and I have been having about Mumford & Sons (he doesn’t like them; I do, a lot, and then less) but also because it compares the band to Frightened Rabbit, a great group I only recently learned about and have been struggling to figure out how to write about.

frightened rabbit

I have trouble writing about both bands, in fact, but for now increasingly different reason. Frightened Rabbit has remarkably good music, but has changed so much from album to album that I fear I might have to write a series of posts about them. For Mumford & Sons, I find my brother’s insistent critique of the band making it difficult for me to listen to them any longer. The vocals are starting to wear on me.

But part of the wear comes not from the band itself but from my steady discovery of other and better music (Frightened Rabbit included). The comparison necessarily leads me to question what it is that makes one band stick and another one slide.

Chris DeVille’s post on Stereogum does a nice job of wading into some of the issues. For one, he takes on the dismissal of Mumford & Sons by hipsters–I am not including my brother in this category, but some of the antipathy comes from the same places–(e.g.,  “Another stereotype says bands on the Mumford wave are gaining too large of a mainstream audience and now must be subject to too-cool indie backlash, but I don’t see too many Arcade Fire fans abandoning the band in the wake of their ascension. The real gulf between Mumford’s ilk and some of the analogous acts that curry favor around here is not marketing so much as posturing.”) I think that DeVille is right on here; yet I don’t think that we can blame marketing alone.

So, as a point of exploring marketing and elusive popularity, DeVille offers up the example of Frightened Rabbit.

As I described last week, in brief, this band just seems so straightforward and gut-wrenchingly honest, that I get drawn into and lost inside the narratives. It doesn’t hurt that they have a great sense of melody and make a nice blend of conventional folky sounds and more ‘modern’ instrumentation. DeVille summaries their approach nicely: ” They do heart-on-sleeve music better than almost anybody, somehow remaining dignified while opening very messy wounds, walking a tightrope the likes of Damien Rice and Glen Hansard struggle to navigate with grace.”

But then he asks the driving question of the post. If the band is so good and if “[j]ust about everyone who heard Frightened Rabbit’s 2008 triumph The Midnight Organ Fight was instantly converted, so why aren’t there more of us? Why hasn’t the band’s profile matured from critically acclaimed cult favorite to household name?” He supposes that the band’s next album was disappointing, that even though they were picked up by a major label, they just didn’t manage to score hits. The implication is that the tight, repeatability of songs like “The Twist” or “Modern Leper” from the 2008 album was not matched by later releases.

The difference between the two bands? Mumford & Sons is more mainstream, marketable and likeable.  DeVille suggests that where Marcus Mumford seems like an amiable fratboy (my interpretation, not his words)  Hutchinson [from Frightened Rabbit] “seems less like a giddy choirboy getting away with it than a beleaguered dunce struggling to stay afloat” and that his band is more post-punk where Mumford & Sons is rather Dave Matthews Band (a good point, but not quite right I think–Mumford is more gospel and Christian rock). The marketability, perhaps, comes from the ‘outcome’ of each band’s emotional intensity

“Both gravitate toward big choruses in the emotional space where hope battles despair, but whereas Mumford always

Strange Talker

Strange Talker

finds the light at the end of the tunnel, Frightened Rabbit retreats into darkness (in keeping with a grand tradition of tearful yet artful Scotsmen that also includes Arab Strap, Belle & Sebastian and FR tourmates the Twilight Sad). The common bond is relentless earnestness, but Mumford proudly bares his soul while Hutchison seems more than a little self-conscious about it.”

The rest of DeVille’s piece contemplates why Indie Rockers still cleave to Frightened Rabbit but have abandoned Mumford. His assertion, that Mumford’s ‘redemptive’ themes just seem a little too corny, says more about a certain subcultures cynicism and pessimism than it does about the band. For what its worth, he also quotes Hutchinson as despising Mumford & Sons.

DeVille offers as comparison Macklemore and chides his readers (gently) for rejecting Mumford & Sons because they fail to meet some hipster aesthetic of authenticity. I think he is right on here, but may need to think a little more about the bands’ sounds. As my brother notes, Mumford & Sons’ songs sound largely the same  and their lack of musical dynamism actually seems to shadow a shallowness of expression, a set of repeated themes and images.

Now, there is nothing wrong with repetition in art. The problem is that writing the same song over and over can only work for so long. Mumford & Sons made it huge on a formula, but will they be able to deviate enough to evolve and keep listeners interesting? The sounds and lyrics of Frightened Rabbit are more challenging and engaging from album to album. They win the aesthetic battle and, it seems, the banner of cool.

But would they rather have the money and fame? DeVille’s musing on the affect of fame and success on the reception of a band is astute and a necessary addition to the debate. I wonder if my brother, for example, would like the band more if they were from the backwoods of Maine and were playing in his dive bar? Did I start liking them because I knew no one who did and had no frame of reference for the band?

Whatever the case, I am grateful to Another J for pointing this article out and to Mr. DeVille for writing it. Even if the bands don’t ask to be compared, the act of comparison itself teaches us something about each member of the comparison (and, ourselves, the viewers). For me, I just want to hear some more Frightened Rabbit. And, maybe, figure out some way to write about them.


13 comments on “Written Better Elsewhere: Mumford and Sons vs. Frightened Rabbit

  1. Jake says:

    I would like to hear your thoughts on Macklemore beyond “Thrift Shop.” Possibly even a review of his album The Heist.

  2. londongigger says:

    This going to add much to the debate but I am fortunate to have seen both at festivals – Mumford in 2008 at the London Wireless festival and Frightened Rabbit in 2010 at Ben and Jerry’s festivals on London’s Clapham Common. Both had merit but I do agree FR’s lyrical content had slightly more gravitas – witness the fact that Birady has used one of their songs in her covers album.

    However,when Mumford came on the stage that first time they were musically more exciting. That was, of course, just as their first album came out. Ironically though the festival gig was at that point the biggest crowd that they had played to, they looked slightly overwhelmed, almost(and excuse the pun) like rabbits caught in the headlights. Fast forward 3 years and what a difference now -world domination.

    • theelderj says:

      That kind of confidence and charisma definitely can’t come through on an album.

      From the sound alone, Frightened Rabbit seems more appropriate to a smaller venue like a club or bar. Mumford’s sound is big and made for big halls.

      But I wonder how much of the difference is native charisma and how much is marketing? In addition, how much of it is about artist’s desire? Marcus Mumford comes from a proselytizing family. It doesn’t surprise me that he would bring a similar type of openness zeal to music…

  3. […] still haven’t figured out how to write about this band. I love some of the songs so much I can’t stop listening to them. This album is not as simple as […]

  4. […] folk band involved here tonight. Unlike some of the bands known here, and many other places, (like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers) Trampled by Turtles has a real folk sound. I’m pretty sure I see someone […]

  5. […] now, my good friend and once roommate Another J asked me if I would consider reviewing the album The Heist by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I immediately agreed (because I love to please and the childhood schoolboy in me still likes […]

  6. […] year I have been listening to Frightened Rabbit. Any one on the albums could have served on this list. I use this one because it came out this year […]

  7. […] You Can’t See Land”, and “Twist”. Earlier in the year I wrote how it would be impossible for me to write about Frightened Rabbit. I haven’t changed my opinion, but I have grown to love this band even more. The group’s most […]

  8. […] college roommate, economist extraordinaire, and runner supreme. Not only has he been kind enough to provide musical hints that have turned into blog posts, but he has also been patient enough to tolerate his stories being […]

  9. […] Rogue Wave in the vocals, some Typhoon in the song structure, and some wild vowels that remind me of Frightened Rabbit.  There are male and female vocals. They use acoustic guitars in angry ways. There are backing […]

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