The beat on Monsters of Folk is that they’re a kind of a 2009 version of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The comparison makes a lot of sense. Both groups of seasoned folk veterans cast their lots in together for the sake of the song. But Monsters of Folk come off more like a Traveling Wilburys than anything else, a group of merry pranksters cruising through life with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The name alone conveys the irreverent, devil-may-care dynamic the members of this band share. And with a body of work as wide ranging as these guys', it was anyone’s guess how the collaboration would actually take shape.
With Jim James releasing his inner Prince lately with My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst heading southwest to mine desert Americana with his Mystic Valley Band, M. Ward sending up '60s juvenilia with Zooey Deschanel in She & Him, and Mike Mogis producing and playing with a veritable who’s who of indie rock, there was clearly a lot of ground Monsters of Folk could cover. How strange, then, to find them shooting safely down the middle for much of their debut album.
Much like the Traveling Wilburys’ canon, Monsters of Folk peruses the sweet spot between its members’ disparate oeuvres. First single “Say Please” is a suitable thermometer for the overall sound and scope of the record: rockist backbeat, country flourishes, traded verses, harmony over the choruses. It’s not that these songs all sound the same. Far from it. But Monsters of Folk largely works within a very specific musical framework. The group only really unleash their true potential when they step outside the box.
Opener “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)” gets the record off to an auspicious start, pairing a tribal hip-hop beat (sampled from Trevor Dandy’s gospel romp “Is There Any Love”) with shimmering strings and Jim James’ honeyed croon. If only its oddball energy could have popped up more on this record. Conor Oberst’s maudlin “Temazcal,” with its quiet, heavy-handed introspection, is a perfect fit for him. Mogis lightens the mood with moogy keyboard musings and reverb-heavy guitar in between verses. When Ward turns in his most Wilburys-esque number, the spritely but defeated shuffle “Whole Lotta Losin,” Mogis stuffs all manner of wonky and colorful sounds into the mix. It would seem that where one player falters, another immediately comes to the rescue.
While they are doubtlessly great songwriters, Oberst and Ward can be kind of gruff on the vocal front. Thankfully James’ distinctive voice both sweetens the vocals and tightens the harmonies; that high lonesome wail works wonders for this record. And Mogis is fitfully restless as a producer, introducing different colors and flourishes, keeping the songs just a touch too sonically shiftless to be boring on the production end. The players on Monsters of Folk complement each other extremely well. There is definitely something to be said for group chemistry. These songs don’t always shine the way they could, but the album is a great effort.
The Monsters of Folk have their origins in a series of live performances from 2004. No album emerged from this work because the band members were busy shaping the world of rock and folk music with other projects. Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis recorded I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Cassadega as Bright Eyes, Jim James led My Morning Jacket on Z and Evil Urges, and M. Ward released Post-War and Hold Time. The foursome, having individually carved out formidable careers, reunite to release this self-titled album. All instrumental and vocal duties are shared, and gives an opportunity to capture what most of us missed in 2004.