Review Summary: Like a well-oiled, cohesive “best-of” collection of each member's oeuvre.
The announcement of Monster of Folk’s debut album this year instinctively drew a knee-jerk reaction of dread from me, despite its pristine indie pedigree. After Tinted Windows defined the term “novelty supergroup” yet again for the year 2009, I was just a little worried that ego and the sense of “fun” that routinely leads artists to ill-advised collaborations would cause the sum of talent here to be considerably less than its individual parts. Luckily for me and fans of the people on display here, Monsters of Folk works more like a well-oiled, cohesive “best-of” collection of each, rather than a clash of styles or a neutered effort of bland, mutually masturbatory jam sessions. Made up of Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Mystic Valley Band), M. Ward (She & Him), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and Mike Mogis (producer extraordinaire), Monsters of Folk’s terrible title belies its eminently accessible nature.
Unlike, say, James Iha and Taylor Hanson, Monsters of Folk’s previous bodies of work definitely share a sort of kinship. From Oberst’s post-Cassadaga work, to James’ obviously country-ish bent, to Ward’s folksy, ‘60s-pop-worshipping solo releases, it seems almost preordained that this foursome would eventually find each other, with Mogis’ instrumental wizardry and understated production serving as the glue of the album. Best of all, despite its 15-song length and influences-on-their-sleeves style, Monsters of Folk never comes off as a gimmick, or, worse, a mere compilation. Oberst never dominates one track and then disappears on the next; James’ doesn’t make one song his personal My Morning Jacket clone and then let someone else take the spotlight on the next. Rather, Monsters of Folk melds them all into what consistently feels like a natural record, one where new listeners might be surprised to learn of the members’ disparate backgrounds.
“Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)” does start things off pretty shaky, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an Evil Urges outtake, and a terrible one at that. But the bad taste is quickly wiped away with the irresistible, fuzzy energy of “Say Please,” where the gorgeous but clearly distinct harmonies gives the song a true group feel, a ‘la Crosby Stills and Nash (or, dare I say it, the Beatles). From there on it’s a veritable treasure trove of woodsy, vibrant music, a grab bag of styles notable not for their differences but by how well they mesh as one. Hear Ward and company burn it on up tempo alt-country rocker “Whole Lotta Losin;’” hear Oberst do his best Johnny Cash impression on the fingerpicked western-flavored “Man Named Truth;” best of all, hear all three of them play off each other on the restless build-up of highlight “Baby Boomer.”
It’s easy to distinguish between the three vocalists, from Ward’s smoky, soulful vocals to Oberst’ wobbling entreaties to James’ immediately identifiable falsetto, yet their effortless harmonies and vocal interplay is sharpened to a lovingly refined point. Musically the band’s closest touchstones are Ward’s last two solo efforts, as songs like the woodsy “Goodway,” “Magic Marker” and many more mimic the kind of ‘60s pop/Americana folk pastiche he’s strived for, although Oberst’s Mystic Valley influence is well represented here (his inexplicable Mexico fascination continues on “Temazcal”). But far be it from them to discriminate - songs like acoustic shuffler “Map of the World” reflect Fleet Foxes’ multi-part harmonies and Appalachian character, while “The Right Place” sounds like vintage, It Still Moves-era My Morning Jacket. The record as a whole continues to build up its own identity as it goes on, thanks in large part to Mogis’ eclectic production and the refusal of the tracks to fall into a stylistic rut.
Sure, it’s a little long, and the opening and closing tracks are two of the worst bookends for an album in recent memory, but perhaps that’s just merely a testament to the strength of the material in between. After hearing Monsters of Folk for the first time it’s easy to write it off as a success in its genre and a (huge) success for the supergroup ideal, but repeated listens show it as much more than that. Songs like “Say Please” or “Baby Boomer” practically sound like they were recorded in a live setting, the band’s energy a nearly palpable feeling throughout. Monsters of Folk is a great album, and it achieves this excellence not with fancy studio tricks, particularly amazing songwriting, or virtuoso musicianship, but with that which so many other supergroups have lacked: a refreshing passion for the material, the kind of passion that is impossible to ignore.