Saturday, September 26, 2009

Monsters of Folk - Yes!

I adore this album. I really, really adore this album. I’ve been disappointed by most things from Bright Eyes, and the new album from M. Ward isn’t much good at all, and the recent work from My Morning Jacket has seemed uninspired to me . . . so hearing that these guys were teaming up for Monsters of Folk, I was not marking my calendar.

Boy was I ever wrong. Monsters of Folk manages to collect the best tendencies of the individual members, while curbing most of their excesses (Conor Oberst’s tendency to pretension, Jim James’s tendency to being simply dumb, and M. Ward’s tendency to listlessness).

It’s an excellent album. And how could it be any other way, as this review from All Things Considered shows, by name-dropping Neil Young?

Indie Stars Become 'Monsters Of Folk'
All Things Considered
by Will Hermes

September 25, 2009 - Supergroups have a long tradition in popular music. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson once joined forces as The Highwaymen. There were the Fania All-Stars, The Four Tenors and Audioslave. Recently, a group of established indie-rock musicians decided to partake in this tradition. They cheekily call themselves Monsters of Folk, and they've just released their debut album.

As a rule, I'm not a fan of supergroups; they usually water down individual visions without nailing down a collective one, and most pop stars aren't so good at sharing the spotlight. But when I heard that Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and solo artist M. Ward were teaming up, I thought, "OK, I love their work separately. With any luck it'll be, maybe, a Traveling Wilburys." To my surprise, these guys are in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young territory.

OK, maybe Monsters of Folk's members are more disaffected than Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and perhaps a little less polished. But like many of the year's outstanding indie-rock records — by Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors — the warmth and power of vocal harmonies are central to the Monsters of Folk record. And not in any single way: The men are folkies on one song, rockers on another. In "Dear God," they even do a halfway decent impression of The Impressions.

Beyond the singing, the group has three of rock's best songwriters working at the top of their game. Some songs have one man's imprint, like "Sandman, the Brakeman and Me" with lead vocals by M. Ward. Other songs seem like real collaborative efforts, and they work a few thematic threads. One is the idea of God, and another related theme is war.

Monsters of Folk might be addressing big themes, but there's little certainty in the band's lyrics. In that way, it feels less like a supergroup and more like, I don't know, a therapy group — although far more musical than any of the ones I've been in.


At 9/26/2009 7:39 PM, Blogger lp said...

jim james is simply dumb? that's rich.

At 9/26/2009 8:59 PM, Anonymous renée said...

What evidence do you have to support your accusation of Jim James being "dimply dumb"?

At 9/26/2009 9:00 PM, Anonymous renée said...

Apparently you have evidence that I can't type. "dimply" = "simply".

At 9/27/2009 6:24 AM, Blogger Adam Deutsch said...

There was a piece about this "super-group" in the latest Esquire, if you happen to be near a news stand.

Or there's the internet:

At 9/27/2009 6:41 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Sorry about the comments regarding the ways these three songwriters go awry now and then in my estimation. I still stand by it, but I should have stressed that I own several things by each of them, and like them.

And for Jim James being simply dumb, it's mostly in the lyrics now and then when he tortures them like this, for example:

"In a crowded room near the box of boom, to an artificial tune, I see you swoon."

Ouch. But, on the flip side, he's also able to come up with some wonderful lyrics. I was just talking about a tendency.

At 9/27/2009 6:43 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

By the way, it's also a tendency I find in Neil Young's lyrics, and, well, it doesn't take long to find out how much I admire Neil Young.

At 9/27/2009 6:49 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Here's the last bit from the Esquire article that Adam Deutsch pointed me to:

"Anyway, about the record: Collectively, these three have forged nothing less than a sonic touchstone for every band that features more than one guy who thinks he can sing. The harmonies are groundbreaking. Goosebump territory. The amalgam of their voices mixed with the musical breathing room creates an intimacy not heard since Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It's a stunning record — cohesive and consistent and ambitious for how much ground it covers. It's something other bands and collectives come lately will try to reverse-engineer and replicate. Because it's better than any of these guys — or any of their spawn — have churned out on their day jobs."


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