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What the... HEY!?

Chart-topping bands discover form of simple percussion to shout about

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CHICAGO -- There's a question that someone paying close attention to contemporary pop music would not be considered crazy for asking:

What's with all the shouting?

Seemingly all of a sudden, bands have been having success punctuating their tunes with "hos" and "heys." These "heys" are not lyrical content, like in Hey Jude. Nor are these chants ritually repeated, almost affectless incantations of a song's chorus, like in most recent Katy Perry hits.

Rather, they are a form of percussion, a novel -- compared to what else is out there -- way of thickening a song's rhythms and of calling back to a time before iTunes, Auto-Tune, recording technology itself.

On its own terms, and as a symbol of popular music's new willingness to reach back into our rural roots, this trend is as welcome as a third encore at an Avett Brothers show.

The most obvious example is, yes, Ho Hey, the infectious, upbeat song by The Lumineers that has climbed improbably to No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100, No. 1 on its rock chart and No. 2 on its pop chart.

Ho Hey, though, is much more folk than rock. The Lumineers are an indie trio out of Denver. One member plays a cello. One wears suspenders.

It's no wonder Billboard itself calls the tune a "surprise hit."

Along with them, the Icelandic group Of Monsters and Men used a repeated "Hey!" to great effect on its Little Talks, a bigger hit in England than here. Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros rode the "Hey!" repetition in Home to love from some indie rock fans and appearances in Blue Cross commercials. Arcade Fire used a "Hey" in No Cars Go, part of the Montreal band's apparent belief that you can never have too much percussion.

Lumineers, though, have made the monosyllabic, intermittent chant into a key ingredient of a big hit song, one that's penetrated the thickets of indie rock, alt-country and Americana and moved into the full-on mainstream.

They played the song on Saturday Night Live, and were up for Grammys for best new artist and best Americana album (they won neither).

I had a note to myself to look into what I called "barking in songs" late last year, but it was when I heard Ho Hey being played on an unabashed pop radio station that I knew something was up.

In the song, the band members repeatedly dot the tune with the two syllables of the title. This basic act -- human voices shouting, in musical time -- lends texture to a simple acoustic song, exuberance to the song's assertion that a couple belongs together.

"Virtually every line is punctuated by a 'ho hey,' and those that aren't get treated with a foot stomp or clap," wrote Esquire's Andy Langer. "Intuitively fun, it also underscores the chant's key appeal: In order to sing along to a chant, you don't actually have to be able to sing at all."

And, music being music, this is, of course, not new.

Such unison vocalizing "goes way back to the workaday people working in the fields, or building boats, or making pyramids," says Jimmy Tomasello, who directs the guitar and songwriting programs at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. "It's in the DNA. There's a need for a tribal experience that people have to have."

In pop history, think back to Sam Cooke's Chain Gang, the 1960 hit that explicitly uses the "huh (pause) hah" chant to emulate men at (forced) labour. New wave act The Pretenders would do a riff on that, as well, for their 1982 song Back on the Chain Gang. Is it a coincidence that the song with the chant was Pretenders' only Top 5 song in the U.S.?

It is probably not coincidence that this is happening now. Increasingly, live performance is the way bands connect with fans (and make money), and decorating songs with bits that everybody can sing along to -- and that show the band being loose, seeming to have fun, on stage -- enlivens the concert experience.

The Lumineers' own bio calls theirs "rustic, heart-on-the-sleeve music." The band worked to simplify its sound. What they ended up with, drummer Jeremiah Fraites told the Chicago Tribune last spring, was this: "Our songs are about people on a ship, singing arm-in-arm, all singing the same note."

Their music is also, of course, part of a neo-folk revival that may well be a flavour of the month, but is a flavour worth celebrating. At the forefront is Mumford & Sons, bringing its love for American folk back to these shores from England.

Of Monsters and Men has credited the Mumfords with paving the way for their sound, but Fleet Foxes and the Avett Brothers have been toiling in folk-tinged vineyards for years, as well.

There's enough of this traditional acoustic instrumentation and vocal harmonizing going on -- add The Head and the Heart to the list -- that there is, of course, backlash. "Mumford and Sons Can't Believe They All Got Each Other Mandolins For Christmas," read an Onion headline in December.

"(Bleep) The Lumineers and all these post-country-twee-(white folks)-drankin-beer-at-a-festival bands," wrote the blogger at recently, setting off on an epic rant that lumped the genre together as "Civil War-re-enactment-wave music."

Fair point.

Is some of this a little calculated, a little formulaic, as many critics seemed to think in reviewing Mumford & Sons' latest album, Babel?

Is it maybe starting to go too far when It's Time, the current hit by Las Vegas pop-rock band Imagine Dragons (which plays Winnipeg's Garrick Centre on March 9), on Jimmy Iovine's Interscope Records, relies on hand-clapping-front-porch-stomp to drive its percussion?

Is it extraordinary that a place like Old Town would be experiencing "a big surge in banjo classes right now," according to Tomasello?


But better those calculations, better this trend, than the one that breaks songs into beats per minute and takes a dozen songwriters, producers and name performers to make a hit that sounds exactly like every other hit.

"There's a continuous folk revival going on in the United States," says Bau Graves, Old Town School's executive director. "There was a bit of a peak that the Old Town School was born on in the '50s and '60s. But it doesn't go away. There are always young musicians going, 'I can learn from that. I can pick that up and do something new with it.' That is what's so exciting about traditional music. It's a never-ending stream."

If only there were a way to boil that sentiment down to one, exultant syllable.

-- Chicago Tribune

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2013 C8

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