Mumford & Sons heads to South Africa, Alex Volz makes a kids album
Mumford & Sons
For a band that seems to be deeply invested in reinventing itself, Johannesburg serves as an interesting point along the journey, but hardly the destination. As far as journeys go, Mumford & Sons has covered a great deal of ground in a relatively short period of time.
It took Paul Simon two decades to go from soulful singer/songwriter to “experimental world musician” with the 1986 release Graceland while Mumford & Sons made the leap in nine years and three albums.
The why of it isn’t hard to decode. The success of the band’s debut album, Sigh No More, was meteoric by any metric, exploring a genre that seemed new, or at least hadn’t been done to death yet.
The follow up album, Babel, was a commercial success but critically seemed an awful lot like Sigh No More II: The Stuff We Left Off the First Album. It started to look as though the band might not have the staying power they’d hoped for so after a hiatus they returned with their third installment, Wilder Mind. That album took a decidedly more rock and roll direction and while still commercially successful, critically it was not as memorable as their earlier work.
With the release of the EP Johannesburg, the band jumps feet first in to “World Music” which seems like a logical progression, really. The collaboration with Baaba Maal, Beatenberg, and The Very Best (from Senegal, South Africa and Malawi respectively) brings together a collection of styles that is surprisingly complementary with the band’s own.
Recorded over two nights in Johannesburg, there is a synthesis at work that is indeed akin to Simon’s Graceland, but a synthesis that goes further than Simon did (or could have, at the time,) spicing up the English folk-rock of one rather than toning down the African flavors of the other.
Is “World Music” the band’s final destination? I think not, but it is an interesting and enjoyable experiment that manages to buy some time for the band as they continue searching for the path that will keep them relevant for many years to come.
All the ingredients are there, it’s simply a matter of finding the right recipe and for now, Johannesburg is a dish worth checking out.
The Little Merman
Alex Volz is back with a new children’s album, The Little Merman. Once again, Alex has proven himself a consummate musician and songwriter, more “Captain Beefheart for kiddies” than “Raffi.” Volz explores a multitude of genres with a level of musicianship unheard of in children’s music and that is a very important part of his charm and genius.
His subject matter falls well within the interests of the very young and his lyrics are likewise within the grasp of children, yet contain enough sly humor and subtle references to make them just as entertaining to adults (a la Looney Tunes.)
The music driving the lyrics, though, is not simple. Volz doesn’t “dumb down” the playing for children which is absolutely wonderful, making a much broader world of music accessible at a much younger age.
“The Snowflake Song” is a toe-tapping examination of individuality, both the kind you choose and the kind that can’t be helped and why that’s a good thing.
“The Ballad of Tim and Ben” answers a child’s curiosity about non-traditional families simply, sweetly, honestly, and in a “power ballad” style slick enough to make you nostalgic for hair metal.
“Where Do Babies Come From?” likewise provides answers for kids in a non-threatening but accurate way that the prudish couldn’t take offense to. That tune, along with others like “Boogers” and “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater,” combines the best of Shel Silverstein and Frank Zappa (an apt description of Volz in general.)
In any genre, for any age, Volz is a master musician, writer and entertainer. That he applies that prodigious skill to making music for children is absolutely inspiring.
As always, the music is available for “name your price” at the Alex Volz bandcamp page which means you can have it free of charge if you like, but given the quality and value of the music, it’s well-worth some hard earned dollars, especially if you request a hard copy which comes not in a jewel case or CD sleeve, but a small, handmade pillow (mine was lobster print.)