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Monsters Of Folk - Monsters Of Folk

Just make sure to check your expectations at the door and you are bound to be left impressed.

The best thing to do when approaching the Monsters Of Folk album is to check any sort of expectations and assumptions you have about the album based on the star power of who is involved; Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, M. Ward, and producer extraordinaire (as well as longstanding Bright Eyes member) Mike Mogis. The album sounds surprising, but also exactly like you would expect, still retaining elements of each artist layered throughout the entire record while also sounding like an entirely fresh new project for all involved. It’s those underlying contradictions that make this album both satisfying and frustrating as well, with the songs themselves varying wildly both in style and in levels of success. Recorded in short bursts in both Omaha and Malibu, these songs manage to have both an unrehearsed and professional sound to them thanks to the understated production of Mogis, which surely is intentional, and serves as a testament to the loose but polished skills of the musicians involved. But as long as the listener doesn’t come to this record expecting it to sound like whichever one of these artists they happen to like best, instead treating Monsters Of Folk as a separate entity entirely, there will be plenty on this record for them to like.

The first thing one notices upon hearing this album is the remarkable lack of ego injected into the songs by these supremely talented songwriters and musicians. For even while leads on the tracks are split pretty evenly between James, Ward and Oberst, they each give their all to tracks where they’re just playing bit parts or singing harmonies, giving the album more of a consistent sound as opposed to simply being a collection of songs by varied artists. And while they don’t stray too far from their comfort zones on most of the songs, the diverse styles of the other musicians eventually manages to coax different sounds out of each of the artists on the songs that truly end up working.

This is certainly the case on the stirring opener ‘Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)’, which successfully meshes the acoustic tendencies of the other musicians with James’ current obsession with falsetto laden soul music. It’s jarring for those that come into the album with any sort of expectations, and serves as a great way to introduce this divergent project to the listener. ‘Say Please’ is a bit more straightforward, with the guitars turned up as well as the spunk, and each member (save Mogis, who instead plays the blistering guitar solo) delivering their forthright vocals with a punch and a spirit that goes well with the driving beat of the song. ‘Whole Lotta Losin’ isn’t quite so effective, with the song never really coalescing, instead sounding like a forced mish-mash of the multiple styles of the artists involved. ‘Temazcal’ is unequivocally a Conor Oberst song, just with a great backing band, and works simply because Oberst carries his sound and approach boldly forward, augmented by the other musicians as opposed to being sidetracked by their ideas. ‘The Right Place’ has an easy, countrified feel to it, guided along by James’ high-pitched warbles, Ward’s jaunty piano work, as well as the bouncy guitars of the rest of the band. It’s an exuberant song that succeeds because of the varied contributions of each of the band members, as do most of the songs that work on this record.

Ward takes lead on ‘Baby Boomer’, disguising some politically charged vocals behind an upbeat melody that has his musical fingerprints all over it. It flourishes simply because of its subtlety, packing quite a punch while also offering a hand to help you up. ‘Man Named Truth’ is unfortunately not so discerning, and loses its impact because of the heavy-handed nature of the lyrics. The band seems to be having fun playing the song, but that jocular appeal is canceled out by the overwrought thematics of the track. ‘Goodway’ is an underdeveloped but charmingly breezy Ward song that unfortunately is nearly ruined by Oberst’s regrettable spoken word coda. ‘Ahead Of The Curve’ sounds too similar to Oberst’s recent output to be memorable, but Ward’s ‘Slow Down Jo’ has a dreamlike, ethereal quality to it that just builds on his current sound, supplemented by the contributions of his accomplished sidemen.

‘Losin’ Yo’ Head’ is an exultant romp, with the driving guitars matching the propulsive beat, and the good times the band was having in the studio certainly coming through in the music, with Oberst even exclaiming ‘I felt better about that one’ at the end of the take. It’s a rollicking number that represents the best of what this group has to offer collectively, and is one of the highlights of the record. ‘Magic Marker’ is a somber drag, especially after the good time offered by the previous tune, and would have been better served by being placed at a different point of the album. ‘Map Of The World’ is another Oberst song, but one that is assuredly influenced by the others, giving the song an added poignancy and potency, with the rhythmic, hypnotic drumbeat augmenting the evocative chorus. ‘The Sandman, The Brakeman And Me’ has a bit of the off-the-cuff brilliance of Dylan’s ‘Basement Tapes’ to it, where the levity of the track is given weight simply by the musicians playing on it. It’s a straightforward song that works due to Ward’s wistful vocals and the delicate guitar work featured throughout the track. James’ falsetto guides the lush album closer ‘His Master’s Voice’, which brings full circle the underlying religious theme running subtly through the record. It’s a gorgeous, plaintive song that leaves the listener wishing for more of James’ influence on some of the other tracks on the album.

Monsters Of Folk are ultimately less a Supergroup than a bunch of proficient songwriters making splendid music together, and while some songs suffer a bit from the ‘too many cooks’ principle, more often than not, this record finds these talented musicians blending their skills seamlessly, supplementing already good songs with their varied and extensive gifts. And while ‘MOF’ doesn’t have the cohesive, tight sound of these artists other projects, it has a spontaneity and unrestrained appeal that is palpable and pronounced. Monsters Of Folk are, after all, just friends making music together, kind enough to let the listener eavesdrop on their good times. Just make sure to check your expectations at the door and you are bound to be left impressed.

Tags: Monsters Of Folk, Reviews, Album Reviews

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