“‘Ho Hey’… has reclaimed pop radio for the acoustic and the hand played. It’s one more hint of a pendulum swing back toward naturalism in pop.”
——Jon Pareles,
N.Y. Times


As the Grammys Approach, All Eyes—and Ears—are on The Lumineers and Their Friendly Rivals, Mumford & Sons
A press release that went out this morning hyping a new band bore an increasingly common point of reference: “RIYL: The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons,” heralded the subject line. During Grammy Week, you can’t open a newspaper, magazine or email without seeing a story about the stealth takeover of Top 40 radio by these two alternative-folk groups, each with multiple nominations and a reasonable shot at chalking up some wins on Sunday night.

But one Lumineer discounts his band’s chances. “We’re not going to win,” drummer Jeremiah Fraites told the N.Y. TimesJon Pareles recently on the set of Saturday Night Live, where the band gained even more momentum. “But the exposure will help sell more tickets to shows, and hopefully people will hear the whole album and give us a little bit more longevity in this business.”

That’s guaranteed, with “Ho Hey” more ubiquitous than ever and follow-up “Stubborn Love” moving up the charts.

Writes Pareles, who has written a fascinating profile of The Lumineers from their origins in New Jersey through their development in Denver: “With its folksy guitar and its foot-stamping, tambourine-driven beat, ‘Ho Hey’ arrived as a startling anomaly in the pop Top 10, where it’s surrounded by Auto-Tuned voices and electronic beats. Mumford & Sons, the English band that decisively re-established folk-rock as a commercial force with their 2009 album Sigh No More, didn’t breach the pop Top 20 with that album’s biggest hit, ‘The Cave.’ But ‘Ho Hey,’ with its chanted hos and heys and its deceptively upbeat chorus—[Wesley] Schultz wrote ‘I belong with you/You belong with me’ in the unhappy aftermath of a breakup—has reclaimed pop radio for the acoustic and the hand played. It’s one more hint of a pendulum swing back toward naturalism in pop.”

“It’s really short and catchy, and people can remember it after they’ve heard it once or twice,” KIIS-FM PD John Ivey tells Pareles. “We obviously do research, and it was a really popular record, and we felt like it was worth a shot just to see if it was palatable with our listeners. Top 40 has always come down to the song, and this is just a cool song.”

“Relentlessly hummable, the song embodies a brand of rustic folk rock that suggests a lost John Denver hit,” Randall Roberts noted in his own take on “Ho Hey” and the improbable alt-folk explosion in last Sunday’s L.A. Times. “Like its kindred spirits over the last few years—Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros' whistle-torture song ‘Home,’ American Idol winner's Phillip Phillips' song of the same name, the deep, echoed folk of the Civil Wars and six-time 2013 Grammy nominee Mumford & Sons' ‘The Cave’ and ‘I Will Wait’—‘Ho Hey’ deftly channels timeless rural authenticity without getting its hands too dirty. Toss in the Low Anthem, the Avett Bros. and the Head & the Heart, and a pattern starts to emerge.”

“As techno, disco, house, hip-hop and beat music have collapsed into one big mess of EDM beats thumping through nightclubs, Top 40 radio and more, the rustic-acoustics have planted themselves in the alley outside, busking and serenading the ecstatic masses with something singalong-simple, as if to say, ‘After all that pounding, here's a dose of whistling and some call-and-response glee to tuck you in as you're coming down.’”

Schultz and Fraites grew up in Ramsey, NJ, and have been writing together since 2005. Along the way, Schultz told Pareles, he changed from being a wordy singer/songwriter to prizing melody first. “Your melodies make people want to hear what you’re saying,” he said. “They’ve got to be open to hearing it, almost hum it. And if they want to go deeper, there is something there.”

Mumford & Sons, Schultz continued, “kicked down doors, and they allowed radio to receive a band like us because we somehow slightly resemble what they’re doing.” But while both bands wrap moody lyrics in toe-tapping melodies, Mumford & Sons pile on instruments in massive buildups, Pareles notes. The Lumineers, by contrast, stay sparse, barely getting around to using an electric guitar on their self-titled album, which has now sold more than 900k.

“It’s very minimal,” Schultz said. “We always just hated clutter. If there’s a sound on the record, it’s meant to be there.”
The band almost left “Ho Hey” off the album, Schultz revealed to Pareles. “Recording it took months and months and months, and we didn’t like any of it,” he recalled. At one point he and Fraites were about to use a two-man version recorded in a bathroom for the reverb of the tiles. Instead they tried again and came up with what Schultz calls “a layered stomp thing” that he compared to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

And if Mumford provided an opening for The Lumineers, they’ve returned the favor regarding Top 40 radio. Mumford & Sons’ new single, “Lover of the Light,” may well be on the way to the Top 20 despite the presence of a banjo. And Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team,” has already made a stealth move into the Top 20.

That’s the weird and wonderful thing about pop music—anything can (and does) happen.

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