Critic’s Notebook: ‘Ho Hey,’ songs like this are here to stay

The Lumineers: Jeremiah Fraites, left, Neyla Pekarek and Wesley Schultz at the Dream Downtown Hotel in New York.
(Dan Hallman, Invision / Associated Press)

One of the underreported music health stories of last year was the trouble brought on by the Lumineers virus. At the beginning of 2012, a three-headed body from Denver released to the world a thing called “Ho Hey,” and it spread through ears and into heads and hearts until it had strengthened into a particularly virulent, if ultimately harmless, strain of ear worm.

It soundtracked ads for Microsoft’s Bing search engine and Blue Moon beer, scored a ubiquitous movie trailer for “Silver Linings Playbook,” bombarded adult alternative radio and ruled YouTube. The band trod hard all year, gigging late-night shows Ferguson, O'Brien, Letterman, Leno and, in mid-January, “Saturday Night Live” to perform “Ho Hey,” opening for Dave Matthews Band and embarking on a headlining tour. At each stop, their ditty hijacked psyches until a big chunk of America had at some point sung to themselves the words, “Ho! Hey! / Ho Hey! / I belong with you / You belong with me / you’re my sweetheart!”

It has hovered in the iTunes Top 10 for the last six months and is currently at No. 4. And 33 weeks after it first charted on Billboard’s Hot 100, it rests comfortably at No. 3. On Feb. 10, “Ho Hey” will arrive on a bigger stage, where it has hitched a ride all the way to the Grammys. The young trio — guitarist Wesley Schultz, percussionist Jeremiah Fraites and cellist-vocalist Neyla Pekarek — has been nominated for two awards, including the prestigious best new artist, where they appear alongside a varied roster that includes Frank Ocean, fun., the Alabama Shakes and Hunter Hayes.


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The Lumineers formed in New Jersey, but after becoming frustrated with the New York scene moved to Colorado. In 2010, a fan uploaded a clip of the band playing “Ho Hey” at a Denver house party.That one amateur video led them to their Seattle management company, online buzz from a few choice Americana music blogs, a label signing, an affiliation with Mumford & Sons’ American publicist and a few well-placed fans among late-night talk show bookers. It’s the ditty that just won’t die; I’ve been struggling with an ear worm infestation on and off since May, and it’s hit me as hard as the killer “Poker Face” outbreak in 2009 and, before that, the “Tubthumping” plague of ’97.

Relentlessly hummable, the song embodies a brand of rustic folk rock that suggests a lost John Denver hit. Like its kindred spirits over the last few years — Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros’ whistle-torture song “Home,” “American Idol” winner’s Phillip Phillips’ song of the same name, the deep, echoed folk of the Civil Wars and six-time 2013 Grammy nominee Mumford & Sons’ “The Cave” and “I Will Wait” — “Ho Hey” deftly channels timeless rural authenticity without getting its hands too dirty. Toss in the Low Anthem, the Avett Bros. and the Head & the Heart, and a pattern starts to emerge.

In 2013, the most pop-friendly purveyors of the “handcrafted” Etsy-folk sound are the yin to dance-pop’s yang, part of a crafty musical movement that appeals in equal parts to collegians, suburbanites, weekend warriors, edgy-ish indie high-schoolers, middle-of-the-road country fans and a host of beer-drinking chant-along souls barking out big-emotion choruses. It’s rural enough to appeal to the musical center but doesn’t risk alienating city-folk by feigning a twang.

Along with the similarly unthreatening — if stylistically divergent — sounds of Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons and indie rock breakout band fun., the Lumineers are the closest thing to a rock band in the Top 40 right now. No wonder festering young indie punks like Metz, Fidlar and Pissed Jeans are churning out some of the most abrasive underground punk in decades.

One would think that our computer world would have rendered such smaller folk tunes obsolete. But Mumford, the Lumineers and Edward Sharpe prove otherwise. As techno, disco, house, hip-hop and beat music have collapsed into one big mess of EDM beats thumping through nightclubs, Top 40 radio and more, the rustic-acoustics have planted themselves in the alley outside, busking and serenading the ecstatic masses with something singalong-simple, as if to say, “After all that pounding, here’s a dose of whistling and some call-and-response glee to tuck you in as you’re coming down.”

Such simplicity, in fact, isn’t so surprising, any more than is Etsy arriving as a foil to the corporatized, mass-market EBay and Amazon or knitting becoming hip among the smartphone set. Music technology may evolve to generate weird new sounds and approaches, but it hasn’t (yet) displaced the joy of singing in harmony and picking on a stringed instrument. As singer-poet David Berman described it in his poem “Self-Portrait at 28,” “We will travel to Mars / Even as folks on Earth / Are still ripping open potato chip / bags with their teeth.”

All the digital pyrotechnics and 130-bpm thumpers can’t drown out an infectiously whistled melody, a pleasingly mellifluous line of a chorus or, in the case of “Ho Hey,” a chant that harnesses the power of primal utterances to create musical communion. What is call-and-response, after all, but the ultimate democratic form? For every few steps forward in American pop’s evolution, bands like the Lumineers and Mumford remind us of the enduring joy of a song — even if at its worst it can be as cloyingly sentimental as a greeting card from Grandma.

This rusticity has existed on the charts in one form or another at least since American urban folk music first went pop in the late 1950s and ‘60s. Though sharing similarities with centrist country music, it notably lacks twang and has been embodied in artists including the Indigo Girls, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Peter, Paul & Mary and the Kingston Trio. It is in Jewel, John Denver and early ‘70s prairie rock hit makers America. Crosby, Stills & Nash perfected the art of harmonic affirmation. Yes, each has its own distinct personality, but all are part of the same universe.

Detractors of the recent version of this sound have criticized the suspenders-and-fedora posse for seeming inauthenticity, as though their affection for Shaker-like simplicity renders them aesthetically suspect. The British newspaper the Guardian described the Lumineers’ sound as “middle-of-the-road rock coloured sepia” with songs that “succumb to saccharine in a wish to charm.” It’s a valid criticism — as evidenced by the trite naivete of “Flapper Girl.”

It’s a fraught topic. As Marcus Mumford explained to the Guardian, “The authenticity thing has never been an issue for me. Not since I came to the realization that Dylan, who’s probably my favorite artist ever, the richest artist for me, didn’t give a … about authenticity. He changed his name. And modeled himself on Woody Guthrie. And lied to everyone about who he was.”

Interestingly, the connections among the Lumineers, Mumford, Edward Sharpe and Civil Wars extend further than their fondness for trains and whistles. Backstage business affiliations tangle these bands together: Most shared the same publicist during their breakthroughs; the Nashville professionals behind the Lumineers’ record label, Dualtone, were responsible for marketing the inspired, Grammy-winning country-folk duo Civil Wars as they bombarded the mainstream. Marcus Mumford has vocally supported the Lumineers’ rise and Mumford and Edward Sharpe toured together (on a train, no less) as both bands were working their way up the charts. (Keep an eye out for Shovels & Rope, a male-female duo from South Carolina who are one of Dualtone’s newest signings; they just landed a slot at Coachella.)

Every person who steps on stage must decide what to do and how to do it once up there. Do you wear your normal clothes or dress up? Work out choreography or move with the spirit? Sing by yourselves or ask the crowd to join along? For the Lumineers’ Schultz, Tom Petty pointed the way. Where other musicians might cite an awesome light show or particularly charismatic lead vocalist, Schultz revealed something of his personality in the way he responded to a question about how he embodies the spirit of his songs.

He noted a particular Petty performance of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” “[A]s the opening guitar line was being played, he opened up a chest on stage that had not been opened the entire show, pulled out a hat, put that hat on for the duration of the song, and then opened the chest back up and put it in and shut it. That is the moment I took away from his show. This taught me everything I needed to know.”

Hopefully the Lumineers haven’t stopped learning. There’s more to the creative process, after all, than donning the proper hat at the perfect moment — just as there’s more to lyricism than a catchy round of ultimately meaningless “ho hey” chants.


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