Album Review: Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk

by Marie Carney on September 29, 2009

Monsters_of_Folk_Album_Cover

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this “supergroup” of modern indie/folk but it is not what I got. The album opens with a drum machine, some sort of harp imitation, and Jim James’ ethereal falsetto. My carpool-mate responded to this by saying, “What is this? The slow jam from a Backstreet Boys album!?!” Not what is expected from a group called Monsters of Folk. I don’t know about the folk part, but the members of the band: Jim James (My Morning Jacket), M. Ward, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) are monsters of the indie scene. The question remains: when they come together, do you get something better than the sum of its parts?

As I was saying, the opening track “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)” is something different. The vocals carry the melody completely, beginning with Jim James, then M. Ward, closing with Conor Oberst. The sparse instrumentation and strong beat make for a different sound than what you’ve heard from these artists before. At first listen it is just odd, but this is the song I catch myself humming in quiet moments. The arrangement is very interesting and haunting and that is what really keeps me coming back for more. After that you are jarred out of your reverie by the next song “Say Please” which sounds more like your standard rock fare. But standard rock-ness is what makes the song standout. It is not like anything you’d hear on one of these artists records, down to Conor’s vocal delivery, which lacks his usual quaver.

Those two songs in particular are very interesting and different, but most of the album feels more like a compilation of their individual work. I am not as familiar with Jim James and M Ward as I am with the Bright Eyes catalog, but it seems to me like you could get songs similar on their other projects. “Temazcal” and “Ahead of the Curve” would have fit right in on Bright Eyes’ Cassadega. To me though, “Temazcal” is a standout track with Oberst’s interesting lyrics and emotive voice, complemented with some thick harmonies on the chorus. Saying it could have fit in on the last Bright Eyes release is a bit harsh since it would outshine the other songs on that record.

The only real folk moment to me is on the M. Ward led “Baby Boomer.” Lyrically it could be a folk song straight out of the 60’s and musically it has a rollicking, hand clapping, sing along quality that seems to fit. Here the political statements work, or are at least more immediately noticeable than on other songs. A line like “We don’t agree about September, could we agree on Vietnam?” packs a punch. There are many lines in the song that make you think; with a little twist here, a little prod there. This is a song where the collaboration works, trading lines and keeping the mood light while slipping in some big thoughts.

It is Jim James’ presence that seems at first listen to take Monsters of Folk in a different direction. After three slow ballads James’ “Losin Yo Head” practically jumps into your ears. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to jump about and play it really loud. But momentum is quickly lost when it flows into another Jim James led song, “Magic Marker,” which is one of the weaker points on the album. But what Jim James really adds are background vocals. His clear voice compliments and brings together the rougher voices of Matt Ward and Conor Oberst.

Really though, the main glue and hidden master of Monsters of Folk is Mike Mogis. If there is any unity to the recording it is through Mike Mogis’ attention to detail in mixing and arrangements. In every song there is a little moment or instrument hidden in the music that just makes the whole song. Like how in “Dear God” the lushness of the chorus, synthesized strings and all, gets contrasted by sneaking Conor’s verse in between them, with just his voice, beats and steel guitar. Or the quiet at first, not so quiet at the end, Wurlitzer on “Temazcal,” and the confusing background noises underneath the line “everyone gets lost” during “Say Please.” It is in all these little moments that the album really comes together into something compelling.

Throughout all this, Monsters of Folk somehow manages to be expected and unexpected, original and derivative, new and old fashioned all at the same time. If you like any of the artists involved you are guaranteed to like at least four of the songs on this album. But more likely, you may come to like an artist you have previously ignored. I for one will be giving My Morning Jacket a chance. And I suggest you give Monsters of Folk a chance. It may just surprise you.

Song to Download: “Temazcal”

Song to Skip When Shuffling: “Magic Marker”

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Caroline September 29, 2009 at 6:49 pm

I thought it was weird hearing the drum machine on the first track. But then I started thinking about it, and a lot of recent My Morning Jacket has that type of synthesized sound.

It's also a throw back to M. Ward's original sound which I really enjoy.

Sorry, Marie, but one of the main reason's I don't care for Bright Eyes is because of Oberst's quiver. I'm glad he opted out of it for this album.

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