The Lumineers: Stories of Cleopatra from folk masters / by Sam Abelow

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, in 1963

The Lumineers first made a big impression, in 2012, with the stomps and claps of their hit song “Ho Hey.” I sort of put them into the same box as Mumford and Sons: refreshing to hear acoustic, folk bands getting attention, but a little hokey for my taste.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago when The Lumineers began their promotion for their sophomore album and I saw them perform “Ophelia” live on The Late Show with Colbert and a Canadian radio show.

Those performances had energy. The band was incredibly tight and tasteful. The drummer reminded me of The Band’s Levon Helm and the vocals reminded me of Levon’s Texas growl as well (The Band’s drummer was also the lead singer).

The Lumineers' newest singles, "Ophelia" and "Cleopatra" demonstrate their mastery of folk-rock songwriting and abilities to arrange a song tastefully.

I was compelled to learn their single and record a cover, because of this kinship I felt: a reverence for folk-rock of the past.

So, I awaited their upcoming album, titled "Cleopatra." In the mean time I listened to their debut, self-titled album for the first time, which I liked — it was homey and reeked of DIY greatness.

Their sophmore album remains true to the band’s original intentions, but the production is taken to another level. This pristine production is effective — still raw, yet clean and immediate.

Lead singer, Wesley Schultz sings lullaby, children songs with grit and emotive power. Track two, “Ophelia,” sounds even more powerful in the album’s context. A sense of expectancy and building arose.

At the bridge on “Ophelia,” one can hear the barn studio rattling. The album has a feeling like one is in that space with them — the walls rattling, the guitar noise between songs. Whether that was strategically created, or happened spontaneously, the effect is dramatic, inviting and helps to hit the listener in his gut.

After the success of their first album, the group did a wonderful job of remaining true to their aesthetics. It’s so refreshing to hear an album that sounds so beautiful. Acoustic instruments are solitary throughout the album; arrangements stripped down to their necessities.

A few tracks into the project, each song seemed to me a concise and deliberate journey through a Midwestern artist’s psyche. 

But I learn now that Schultz grew up in New Jersey and the group found their sound in the dive bars of New York City. This is fine by me: The Band (the greatest folk-rock example) were mostly Canadian. But, lead singer, Levon really was from the South and was a much-needed dose of authenticity.

As much as I love our common influences, there seems to be something stilted about their melodies. For example the “la la” part on “Gun Song.” It’s like they’re reducing themselves to a folky-twang that has been done before, and seems contrived and easy.

Still, the album’s production itself is a joy to listen to. The acoustic guitars are perfectly recorded and his vocals sit on a deep well of empty space — a sparseness which is a needed refuge in the over-saturated music so prevalent today (see Drake and Future, or MØ’s debut)

Song titles: “Angela,” “Cleopatra,” “Ophelia.” Schultz seems to be attempting to tell stories with his songs. But the stories don’t seem to connect to me; they are just a series of trite statements — “are you safe and warm” — and vague intimations — “The strangers in this town build you up to take you down.”

He tends to be vague, when it would help to be specific, especially because everything musically is so understated. For example on “In the Light” —

“I don't know why I just can't let it go;
Memory's old but I just can't let it go;
The idea's gone but I just can't let it go.”

Schultz opts for lyrical repetition, which is monotonous and dull when the entire arrangement is a mere supports for his vocals and words.

So if one is going to have a lullaby melody, the words better not be as boring a children’s book.

Think, “Hallelujah,” “Blackbird,” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” as classic examples of doing this exceptionally well.

The Lumineers performing at the Grammy's 2013

At other times it’s like he’s reading from an old book; he’s writing in a wait that he wouldn’t speak like if you met him on the street. 

“It drains from my skin, it does.” 

“Days of my youth… We ran for the hills…”

“Your time is running out and I’m a long way from home.”

And this old book is ambiguous (maybe some of the details are worn out?) and uninteresting. The songs give me that feeling like I’ve met someone who wears suspenders and fedoras and talks with a fake english accent.

— Indeed, how vaguely… emotional and classy sounding, they are.

His voice is huge and brilliant, raspy and truthful; it carries the tunes along beautifully. And big, reverb laden toms, sparsely punctuate his soaring, belting escalations.

Track six, “In the Light” starts off, again like a lullaby, child’s song, but then has the first interesting chord change of the whole album so far. Finally, an unexpected chord — something harmonically interesting. 

This album reads like a children’s piano-learning book. A breezing read-through of long-worn chord progressions and melodies. Yet they are done effectively and tastefully.

I started to feel vaguely dejected during “Sick in the head.” Like the album was beginning to be groggy and lop along. I like slow songs, but this was forgettable. This was boring.

The energy seemed to plateau near the end of the album. I can see how, in the studio, The Lumineers thought this series of coffee house, acoustic moments would be compelling and delicately emotional. But, to me it was decaf and I was looking for a nap. It’s not that an album needs to hit one over the head to be great. But The the second half of this album sluggishly trudges along and defeat themselves in their bare nudity.

I quite like the instrumental outro. It’s nice and pretty. Ties the album off, which seemed to have started strongly, then dropped off, to end quickly in a disappointing lull.

Grade/Review: C+