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I first came across Ames, IA’s Mumford’s some years back at a dingy rock club here in Iowa City opening for Iowan cornerstone The Poison Control Center. I had no clue what to expect, and afterward, I had no clue as to what in the green hell I had just seen. “There’s horns, but it’s not ska, but it makes you dance, but there’s sad songs, but there’s this guy that was wearing rainbow suspenders and doing high kicks while playing flamenco guitar….I dunno, man”. I’ve seen the band a good many times since then, and while that rambling, incoherent is an accurate description of what I saw, I can give you a much more streamlined description of the band’s live presence. Mumford’s are a group of rock and roll storytellers with the chops, confidence, and the commanding stage presence of groups with decades more experience. No matter what your reaction to the band may be, you WILL come away knowing that the band has made every attempt to bring you into their sprawling collective. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that their new magnum opus Immediate Family
does just the same.
Their boundless energy and wild stage show makes listening to their studio albums a jarring experience for the neophyte. Outside of a few key tracks here and there, Mumford’s albums are relatively subdued affairs, and Immediate Family is the most musically laid back of their three studio albums. The peppery horns that lace “Orion’s Belt” and “Stickbag” are replaced with layered arrangements that sneak in the background. The insistent backbeats of “Two-Eye” and “Father in the Sky” are gone. Indeed, the threat of an album full of ballads that lead singer Nate Logsdon made oh-so-long-ago has come true. Outside of the peppy lead single “Caster”, the songs are all down-tempo story-songs in the vein of “The Prisoners Need You Here” and personal favorite “Coffee and Whiskey”. Pianos, strings, and gently finger-picked guitars take It takes balls to essentially abandon the sound and raucous energy on which you’ve made your name, but it many ways, Immediate Family is the album Mumford’s have been building to their entire career.
showed us a band with a knack for creating incredibly detailed oddball characters in only a few minutes, and Triple Trinities
showed the same band developing an ability to make a clear, coherent statement at the album level. With Immediate Family
, the guys have pulled those aspects of the albums together in striking fashion. Each of the songs paints a brief slice of family life, and frequently, the songs speak back and forth to one another in a manner we haven’t seen in quite some time. It’s not a novel idea, but in the context of this album, it’s an absolutely essential one. The stretch of songs at the core of the album including “Family Circle”, “Jail Time”, and “Never Know” all seemingly detail a family torn apart by a father’s infidelity with each track telling a different perspective of different points in time. “Family Circle” lays the groundwork for the story, and it’s the best track the band has yet created. A stately piano anchors the track while lead singer Nate Logsdon gives a harrowing first person account of the infidelity from the mother’s point of view, and in the six minutes and twenty-seven seconds, he’s able to leave an indelible psychic mark. It acts as the devastating thesis statement for the entire album, giving us a crystal clear picture of how family affects us in the past, present, and future whether we like it or not.
While that superb triptych is indeed a wonderful bummer, the album doesn’t lay on the doom and gloom so thickly that the listener doesn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. “Fleshlike Material” explores breaking out of a shell to bring a new member into a family against the backdrop of a spacey, wandering guitar / piano combination as well as a new level of crashing grandeur in the chorus. The title track follows that thematic suit of a growing family with a stirring a cappella performance that shows true growth in Logsdon’s vocals. The subtle changes in inflection, the gentle introduction of humor, and the heartbreaking lyrics give us a complete, nuanced image of a troubled person that never falls prey to broad strokes or cheap stereotypes. Creating these fully-formed characters is never an easy task, but Mumford’s is up to the challenge. The greatest challenge comes in “Caster”, a defiant track about transgender acceptance. Once again, they could have taken the easy route and written a rousing track with a lot of empty platitudes that might ring a bit hollow. Instead, they take the time to lay out the logic behind their thoughts to create a rallying, fist-in-the-air anthem for our trans friends and allies. This is not an easy subject to write about, and yet, Mumford’s make it seem easy while still tying the track into the larger themes of the record.
The band is more restrained on Immediate Family
, but that doesn’t limit the impact they’re able to make when given the opportunity. Kai Tanaka’s proven himself to be a surprisingly shreddable guitarist, and he outdoes himself on the lonesome, howling slides “Jail Time” as well as on his wistful lead on album closer “Don”. The band’s formidable and ever-changing horn section doesn’t get a “Showcase Moment” here (think “Orion’s Belt”), but they’ve matured past just providing licks to fill in the open spaces. Instead, the horns are carefully arranged alongside the string section, guitars, and piano, creating a deeper and more intricately shaded sound that mirrors the depth of the lyrics.
The album closes with a striding ode to Don Mumford, simply named “Don”. As you might guess, he’s the inspiration behind the band’s name, and he’s also the impetus for the creation of the group. (This article does a great job of explaining all that needs to be explained. Read it if you’re unfamiliar with the story
.) It’s a heartbreaking song on its own, and even more so when you take in the history behind the story. It’s also another great summation of the album, the band, and the culture that Mumford’s have helped create in the middle of the middle of the country. Family is only what you make it. Family can be blood and can be torn apart by a mistake in a moment of weakness. Family can also come in the most unlikely of places, even in something as simple as kindness from a stranger on a bicycle. With Immediate Family
, Mumford’s explore the idea of family in all of its forms, and in doing so, they’ve created an unforgettable album that is sure to strike a chord in anyone that gives it a fair shake. It’s raw, it’s honest, it’s fantastic, and it’s easily one of my favorites of the year.
1. No One Lives Here By That Name
3. Family Circle
4. Jail Time
5. Never Know
6. Fleshlike Material
7. Immediate Family
8. Ten Pounds