On Mt. Joy and the Slow, Predictable Creative Decay of Folk Rock
The buzz around Mt. Joy makes you wonder: has hype just become reflexive? Sure, the Philadelphia band has the right moves. Mt. Joy plays a latter-day variant of folk rock that has NPR so excited that it has premiered two songs and the band's self-titled debut LP, while praising the group for the way it "combines old-school classic rock and touches of rootsy acoustic music with vibrant, well-crafted songs that overflow with hooks, tenderness and singalong moments."
Here's an alternate take: they're boring as hell. Their songs are derivative, their lyrics are strewn with road-weary cliches that pretend to profundity ("Jesus drives an Astrovan?"), and their stage presence is negligible. Their set opening for Neko Case in Northampton in January was so dull as to be instantly forgettable ("It's like John Mayer and Mumford and Sons threw up," a friend texted midway through). Even NPR has betrayed hints of disinterest: Stephen Thompson used the words "amiable" and a version of "ambling" twice each in his two-paragraph "First Listen" write-up. (Mt. Joy: Too Drab for Synonyms).
Mt. Joy isn't the only folky act whose buzz has outstripped the music. Henry Jamison is another. The Vermont singer's 2017 album "The Wilds" is actually pretty good, but he is the victim of a PR campaign built almost entirely around the fact that he comes from a family with poetic leanings, including some distant relative who was tight with Chaucer. In the 1300s. "I don't know how much any of it means," Jamison says in part in his press bio. That's easy: it doesn't mean anything. Whatever your great-great-great-great-etc. uncle's cousin's brother's dad did 700 years ago hasn't the slightest bearing on what you're doing now.
That brings us to the Lone Bellow, the band that foretold the waning of creativity in folk rock. Admittedly, the Nashville-via-Brooklyn group has written a handful of catchy tunes, and Zach Williams, Kanene Doheney Pipkin and Brian Elmquist can definitely harmonize. But with their urban-homesteader look and paint-by-numbers songwriting, they've always given the impression of being more about the aesthetics than the music, of being part of that Newport Folk Festival scene without adding anything essential to the body of music that got them there. (Full disclosure: I reviewed the Lone Bellow's second album, "Then Came the Morning," and in retrospect was probably too generous. I also once walked out of one of their shows, in Northampton, when Williams broke two different low strings on his acoustic guitar, on consecutive songs, essentially from overexcited clowning around.)
That same creative decay happens in every genre. In the '90s, for example, it was a pretty short haul from Nirvana and Pearl Jam to bands like Bush and Collective Soul, and then on down to Nickelback and Creed; and you could draw a pretty straight line from the Ramones to Blink-182. Such reductionism is probably inevitable, and while it's not always all bad — more kids came to punk through Blink than through the Ramones, for example, even though the Ramones helped invent punk — it's not always worth firing up the hype machine, either.