UK LP pressing. Monsters Of Folk is a collaboration of Conor Oberst, Jim James, M. Ward, and producer Mike Mogis, four of this generation's most critically acclaimed artists. Monsters Of Folk have come together to create a truly unique album. Each of the band members stands alone in the studio as artists in their own right. Conor Oberst is Bright Eyes, Jim James leads My Morning Jacket, and M. Ward is a critically acclaimed singer songwriter (She & Him).
Review by Andrew Leahey
When M. Ward, Mike Mogis, Jim James, and Conor Oberst announced plans to record together, fans were quick to link the supergroup to the Traveling Wilburys, who blazed a similarly star-studded path 20 years prior. Truth be told, Monsters of Folk's emphasis on harmony vocals and atmospheric arrangements has just as much in common with the work of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, even if the political concerns that grounded the latter group are largely absent here. Instead, the self-titled Monsters of Folk tackles religion, nature, love, and lust, with all four songwriters sharing vocals and songwriting duties. Mogis, who rose to prominence by playing a central but somewhat surreptitious role in Bright Eyes, receives slightly less screen time than the others, preferring instead to remain behind the scenes as producer and sideman. Even so, his guitar solo during "Say Please" is one of the album's loudest, rawest moments, and his production helps draw connections between the album's slew of songwriting styles and genres. "Folk" is defined broadly here, as the album encompasses everything from trip-hop to roots rock to homely, homespun pop. Spread over 15 tracks, the combination wears thin at several points, and several songs feel more like their creator's solo work than a composite product. Monsters of Folk has moments on undeniable beauty, though, and when the musicians pitch their voices atop one another -- as they do to notable effect on the gorgeous "Slow Down Jo" -- the benefits of teamwork are more than clear.
Here it is: Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Matt Ward, and Saddle Creek auteur Mike Mogis' much-ballyhooed entree-- what one assumes is our era's Traveling Wilburys. During a 2004 collaboration- and cover-heavy tour billed "An Evening with Bright Eyes, Jim James, and M. Ward," the quartet committed to making an album when time permitted. Recorded in bursts in Malibu and Omaha, Monsters of Folk often took the backseat to its creators' primary concerns. Since that tour, Oberst released three successively weak albums as Bright Eyes before leaving his own label and recasting himself as a wild-eyed, globe-trotting troubadour under his own name for Merge Records. Ward, now Oberst's labelmate, has since released four albums of retro distillations, including Volume One, the debut of his project with actress Zooey Deschanel known as She & Him. James' My Morning Jacket has grown into one of the biggest American rock bands, his distinctive, reverb-heavy vocals and his band's sharp riffs and hooks putting them somewhere between, say, Wilco and the Black Crowes. Meanwhile, Mogis has produced records by Ward, Oberst, Tilly and the Wall, Cursive, and about a dozen others.
In many ways, Monsters of Folk feels like a summary statement for the inconsistent careers of the musicians behind it. Like the combined output of all four, these 15 tracks-- a mix of highs and lows, stylistic risks and reservations, songs that sound either exactly or nothing like the past of the person singing it-- are as frequently frustrating as they are satisfying. An album about God and love, neighbors and friends, it's the sort of lived-in record that too often feels too comfortable to compel.
Very few of the tunes here are flawless, but most of them at least deliver something interesting. Oberst's "Temazcal", for instance, fumbles through a listless decoupage of pagan and Spanish images and lands more than once on maudlin lyrics that seem like Facebook status updates. "The love we made at gunpoint wasn't love at all," he offers, besting himself with the next verse: "Blew open my mind. Now it's an empty room." But astral harmonies arch around his frail voice, ensconcing it within a warm falsetto glow. Acoustic guitars build in halos that suggest James Blackshaw with a four-track. They swell and collapse, settling against the click of programmed drums. Smart production props Ward's droopy "Slow Down Jo", too. He offers generic advice for a busy, maybe debauched friend, easing it out with a lassitude that makes you commiserate with the fast-living guy instead of the sensible one. But Mike Mogis' steel guitar stretches like a sigh. James wraps a gorgeous choir beneath Ward, and Oberst rotates between washed-out piano and steel drums. All those textures accomplish what the song itself cannot-- to make deceleration appealing. And though it takes a hackneyed stand on issues of mind control, media manipulation, and The Man over a droll, Western barroom bounce, "Baby Boomer" twists references to pirates, censors, Christopher Columbus, and big-box book stores into imprecations that are certainly clever, if not altogether provocative.
If that all sounds critical of Ward and Oberst, fine: Between tracks two and 10, James takes only one lead turn, allowing the album to drift into a bland, generally mid-tempo roots-rock torpor. Ward does his nostalgic Americana best (the fragmentary "Goodway" and the Tennessee Two-tickin' "Baby Boomer"). Oberst overwrites and oversings in his overwrought way (the forced and didactic "Man Named Truth" and the staid "Ahead of the Curve"). These songs offer no surprises. But, with the exception of the aching, gorgeous closer "His Master's Voice", James' five contributions to Monsters of Folk are left turns. On "Losin Yo Head", the rock burst that finally ends the mid-album doldrums, he sings as if leading Cheap Trick, peeling back his trademark reverb to step in front of the album's most aggressive moment. Not coincidentally, it's one of the album's addictive tunes.
Indeed, only James consistently works to move beyond his mold, a quality that's often defined My Morning Jacket's mixed catalog, too. On the gorgeous opener, "Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)", he and Mogis (the disc's stars, no question) shape a subtle soul track with harp, synthesizers, and samples drums from "Is There Any Love", a cut from the Numero Group's Good God! collection that's also been lifted by Kid Cudi. He passes the second and third verses to Ward and Oberst respectively, and they both handle their theological plea with care. Their distinctive voices bend to meet the difficult beat, and, as they ask these big questions of the universe, they sound sincere, approachable and interested. It's as if having to verbalize these misgivings-- "If your love's still around/ Why do we suffer?"-- inspired a shift in their fundamental approach. The opener is as intriguing as it is unexpected. It's just too bad, then, that the rest of the album continues to ask similar questions, but never again with the same vigor or innovation.
— Grayson Currin, September 23, 2009