"It's really arbitrary to any of us," said Wesley Schultz, lead singer of the folk-rock band The Lumineers, who perform at Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre on Thursday.
He was talking to American Songwriter about the breakout success of his band's independently released, self-titled debut album, which, seemingly from out of nowhere, went double-platinum and reached No. 2 on the U.S. charts in 2012.
This skyrocket was launched by an infectious anthem of a lead single, "Ho Hey," which sounded pretty much like a song by French electronic pop band M83, but transcribed for stringed instruments. "Ho Hey" reached No. 1 in three different radio formats, for whatever that's worth now. "I'm really thrilled," Schultz continued, "but I also take it with a grain of salt."
He's wise not to get too swept up in the hype, as it's virtually impossible to guess what the market will welcome. But through a retrospective and slightly cynical eye, the extraordinary success of "Ho Hey" does not seem like it should have been too hard to predict. There's nothing arbitrary in how the song is pieced together from things people were proven to already like—at least people who embrace the current style of popular music in which stadium-sized twee-pop is dressed up in old-timey string band clichés. (And often dressed up quite literally, with suit vests, suspenders, sock garters and Civil War-era facial hair.) Mumford and Sons and Of Monsters and Men are a couple of the biggest names currently plowing this musket-ball-pocked field, but there are lots of other bands throwing their battered derby hats in the ring, including Durham's own Delta Rae.
The secondhand feel of "Ho Hey" doesn't stop at the general traits of this strain of folk-rock, though they are all spot-on: an elementary melody combined with sentimental lyrics; alternately caressing and frantic musicianship basically derived from grunge music (or, as a friend aptly summed up the Mumford formula, "silence ... BANJOS!"); the inevitable, stirring leap up an octave in the vocal part; the gibberish harmonies that audiences can belt back at festivals, clapping the beat; the dulcetly compressed acoustic stringed instruments roughed up with dramatic percussive sounds.
Beyond all that, there are some head-scratchingly blatant echoes of similar recent hits. Just like in Mumford and Sons' "Little Lion Man" video, the "Ho Hey" video set is draped with strings of softly sepia-filtered lights, one of which slips under a boot and explodes in a floorboard-stomping shot that also could have come right from the Mumford video. The titular "Hey!" sounds so much like the one in Of Monsters and Men's "Little Talks" that it could pass for a sample. "Ho Hey" is a hit made mostly of other hits.
If this is even a criticism, it's a general rather than a specific one. Much of pop music is about the timely and rejuvenating calibration of bits gathered from other recent songs. For all its folksy affectations, the music that singer and guitarist Schultz performs with Jeremiah Fraites (percussion, backing vocals) and Neyla Pekarek (cello, keyboards, mandolin, backing vocals) is undeniably pop.
This sets The Lumineers apart from the many bands who are reinventing folk idioms in pop formats with more of a focus on erudition, such as David Wax Museum (performing at Duke Gardens on Wednesday, June 12), whose indie-rock-injected "Mexo-Americana" is based on extensive fieldwork in Mexico and includes rhythms played on the jawbone of an ass. The Lumineers' music isn't about preserving the rustic reference or regional point of origin, but about universality and simplicity, timelessness and placelessness. And it should be mentioned that "Ho Hey" is very effective pop music: To hear it once is to know it forever, and each lyric is one-size-fits-all.
Much as contemporary mainstream dubstep tracks are built around the bass drop, which the audience is conditioned to expect, the contemporary mainstream folk-rock song is built around the treble rise, when the song releases itself from a tight clench and goes whooshing upward in a cathartic outpouring of emotion. It usually has something to do with being young and in love, or remembering when you were young and in love. That theme swirls through The Lumineers' second single, "Stubborn Love" (which sounds not much different than "Ho Hey"), as well as "Flowers in Your Hair."
A satisfying if obvious musical maneuver, the same ingratiating impulse creates lyrical situations in which cunning writing is followed by sheer nonsense. On "Flowers in Your Hair," decently chewy aphorisms such as "It's a long road to wisdom/ But it's a short one/ To being ignored" must be interrupted by the perfunctory refrain of "Be in my heart/ Be in my eyes /Ai yai yai." It's the same in "Ho Hey": Its airily winsome chorus—"I belong with you/ You belong with me/ You're my sweetheart"—seems to have no clue what's going on in the lonesome verses.
The music of The Lumineers certainly runs contrary to the tastes of folk purists, as well as anyone who is particularly sensitive to the rose-tinting of an antebellum era that was characterized by a lot more than quaint barbershops and bib overalls. But we shouldn't mistake the continuous, lineage-bearing mission of folk with the temporary, image-making mission of pop.
Or perhaps a song as calculated as "Ho Hey," despite its superficial earnestness, can be said to be folk in a peculiarly contemporary way: It's the result of a transient exchange of musical ideas on a mass, impersonal scale. Whatever it is, it feels good to sing along and stomp your feet to it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Illuminating The Lumineers' smash success."