Some albums you love instantaneously, others you have to work at. And, just occasionally, an album comes along that you know that you will love if only you can hear it enough times. Except that you won’t. You will keep on playing it, and still you won’t really like it, and still you will keep on playing it. Mine at the moment is the one by Mumford & Sons, the amusingly posh raggle-taggle folk group (all called Oli and Ben), who enjoyed a wondrous 2010, selling loads of records and wowing festival audiences (all called Oli and Ben). If only they could write a decent tune, they might be quite good.
Last week I was perilously close to throwing in the towel, and putting on an old Steely Dan record instead, when it suddenly occurred to me: it’s the voice. Detailed perusal of sleeve notes then revealed that the lead singer is called Marcus. How had I not noticed this before? An old friend of mine, who likes to put people in their place, once said that anyone called Marcus was either black or a public schoolboy, and sure enough Marcus Mumford went to King’s College School in Wimbledon. (Some of his bandmates were at St Paul’s.) But it’s the voice. We are not talking about a thing of beauty here. It whines, it grates, it has the unmistakeable stench of authenticity (which means it is probably put on), and it sounds uncannily like someone else’s voice. But whose? Where did he get it from?
I worked it out in the end. It took me about a day and a half of blood vessel-bursting concentration. Marcus Mumford is vocally a dead ringer for a man called Simon Aldred, who fronts a band called Cherry Ghost. They had a couple of annoying minor hits in 2007 with ‘Mathematics’ and ‘People Help The People’. Aldred comes from Bolton and so can probably be excused the distinctive knife-through-butter whine in his voice. But at least it’s his voice. Presumably, Marcus Mumford thinks it’s his voice, too, now. I wonder how Simon Aldred feels about it. Deeply flattered, or overcome by murderous rage?
Very little in pop music, of course, is truly original. Everyone adapts everyone else’s ideas to their own purpose, knowing that if something hasn’t been done before, there’s usually a very good reason for it. And although you would have thought a singing voice was just what it was — the way you sound when you open your mouth and start singing — it obviously isn’t. When the Beatles emerged and changed everything in 1963, suddenly everyone sounded a bit like them, with those big, open, slightly strident harmonies. I used to think it was something to do with the limitations of recording technology at the time, and maybe it was, but it was also to do with people’s overwhelming desire to sell millions of records.
Think of all the terrible singers who have tried to ape Robert Plant, or, even worse, Ozzy Osbourne. In the late 1970s, Elvis Costello also inspired a number of clearly deluded soundalikes. One of my favourite albums of last year was Down The Way by Australian siblings Angus and Julia Stone. There is no getting away from the fact that Julia, who lives as far from Reykjavik as anyone can, has ingested superhuman quantities of Björk. If she laid an egg at a film première, you wouldn’t be at all surprised. Another singer-songwriter I like, Emiliana Torrini, has the same problem, although at least she has the excuse of being Icelandic. Maybe there’s something in the water there.
Some genres have become so precisely defined that you have to sound like someone else to make any sort of living. When Harry Connick Jr started up in the 1980s sounding just like Sinatra, everyone scoffed. Nowadays all the dull young crooners (Michael Bublé) and borderline jazzers (Jamie Cullum) do it, and no one expects anything else. Similarly, all female R&B singers must sing in the gruesome, melisma-heavy, melody-mangling style pioneered by Whitney Houston and the monstrous vulgarian Mariah Carey. (Has anyone single-handedly inflicted greater lasting damage on pop music, other than Simon Cowell?) But in these cases impersonation isn’t just an option, it’s compulsory. The market dictates. It’s a different matter to ape someone else’s highly distinctive voice, as Mumford appears to have done, and then sell more records than them. Maybe it’s time for me to listen to something else. Aja or Pretzel Logic?