Genericana alums are in their sophomore sink-or-swim moment — there was The Head and the Heart’s Let’s Be Still, Edward Sharpe’s self-titled (which was technically their third album, but it’s a sophomore follow-up to their uber-successful Here), and then there was that time that Mumford & Sons saw the writing on the wall and ditched their banjos for electric guitar rock. The Lumineers, however, rode that first album glow for four whole, platinum-earning years before releasing their second record Cleopatra.
The first sounds you hear in the foreground are stomps, a tambourine substituting for a snare, and an acoustic guitar. So far, it’s business as usual for the group. Which, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing — if it works well enough to get you on commercials and Hollywood soundtracks, it ain’t broken enough to fix. That opener, “Sleep on the Floor” uses similar aw-shucks grammar to narrate lovers skipping town and living on the lam:
They don’t rely too hard on bygone technology to bludgeon the point home, though, which is a plus. “Subways” and “bridges” exist today as they did when Americana’s roots were being formed, thus avoiding too obvious criticisms of calculation.
The following “Ophelia” puts the tambourine-and-stomp under the chords (in the same key as, and like a somehow less sonically-interesting “21 Guns”), “Gun Song” relies on an entire verse of “La-la-la’s,” and multiple old-timey metaphors get reused, such as passing road signs and ‘the hand you’re dealt.’ In order to keep that success train running, they’ll go pretty out of their way to keep it stale.
They show signs of growth, also. While “Angela” is the third out of the first five tracks titled a female name, it makes references to the main character’s “Volvo,” which feels more honest. Who doesn’t know someone whose beaten-up Volvo has many a story to tell? It’s a car that this demographic has grown up either riding in or driving, but has little association with folksy, American artifacts. The point is, this shows signs of the band actually earning the ‘heart-on-sleeve’ plaudits they often get from critics. The same goes for when lyricist Wesley Schultz goes for the jugular, as he does on “Long Way from Home.”
Even inside the hip and modern take of this genre, Cleopatra’s Lumineers still don’t tell stories as well as Elvis Perkins or Blitzen Trapper can. Nor are those stories as enjoyable of a listen as Typhoon‘s work. Nor as real-life relatable as Horse Feathers.
Art isn’t a competition, but all niches come in full flavor and the watered-down version. To some, The Lumineers were the poster-children of that blandness, but are slowly starting to leave that camp behind, along with the other Genericana sophomores .