Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #67: "Sparrow and the Wolf" -- James Vincent McMorrow

You've heard James Vincent McMorrow before. You may not have known it at the time, but such is the nature of "commercial songs," for lack of a better term. In McMorrow's case, chances are you heard his song "Sparrow and the Wolf" in an LL Bean ad. And as always, say what you will about indie artists allowing their music to be used for advertising purposes -- "selling out," as some call it -- but it brought this wonderful folk music to the limelight. Let's give credit where credit is due.

McMorrow's "Sparrow and the Wolf" is a pleasant slice of upbeat folk pop. Featuring a driving, train-like drum beat and airy acoustic instrumentation, McMorrow sings in a tranquil higher register, a register known to go even higher on songs such as his beautiful cover of Steve Winwood's "Higher Love." Adding to the effect are "ooo"ing backing vocals from McMorrow and what sounds to be a lovely female voice.

But despite its catchiness and generally upbeat aura, the song's lyrics are actually quite depressing. "I have seen no joy, only dangers / I see no joy, only strangers / I see no joy, see no joy in this world," he sings on the song's chorus. This is a fucked up world, and McMorrow's here to tell you all about it -- with a happy little tune. It's the "Pumped Up Kicks" effect -- "wait, THAT'S what the song's about?!" More on that later.

"Sparrow and the Wolf" is steeped in the new folk tradition set forth by critical darlings such as Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons. Perhaps chalk up McMorrow as another byproduct of the UK folk revival, but there's something about the young Irish singer that causes him to stand out. He may never catch on in a big way in America, but I'm sure Europe will be glad to have him.

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