I find it a lot harder to write CD reviews than movie reviews, partly because I need to listen to an album carefully several times before I feel comfortable writing about it and things pile up. So I have a handful of 2009 albums sitting unreviewed that I hope to get to over the next couple of weeks so I can have a proper summary of my year in music.
I don’t buy a ton of albums, not compared to true music hounds. I average maybe 15-20 per year, generally the new releases of artists I like and a few attempts to broaden my horizons by picking up something new that’s receiving a lot of acclaim.
Monsters of Folk’s self-titled debut album falls somewhere in between. The band is a “supergroup” made up of members of My Morning Jacket, Bright Eyes and She & Him. I loved Jim James’ work on My Morning Jacket’s Evil Urges and that’s a large part of the reason I bought this album. I’m less familiar with Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis (who collaborate in Bright Eyes, though it’s mostly Oberst’s show) and I know M. Ward only through his guitar playing on the She & Him album, having never heard his solo work.
2009 was the year of the supergroup, with Tinted Windows, Chickenfoot and Them Crooked Vultures joining Monsters of Folk in releasing albums. I suppose in the age of MP3s and Web releases, it makes sense that artists are experimenting with different lineups and distribution platforms. Why not team up with your peers and throw a couple of tunes on your Web site to test the waters? It’s easier than ever to get instant feedback on all kinds of experimentation.
The original supergroup was The Traveling Wilburys, and Monsters of Folk have been compared to that assemblage of rock legends, if not in stature than in sound. This album has a similar laid-back vibe and the same structure of rotating songwriting and lead singing duties. Still, I think the reasons Monsters of Folk works as well as it does is that these artists are obscure enough (to me, anyway) to avoid it seeming like a collection of solo songs grouped on one release. They feel like a band.
The lineup has been divvied up democratically, with Ward, James and Oberst each singing lead (and presumably writing, though all four share songwriting credits) five songs on the album. Mogis stays out of the spotlight but produced the album and plays a host of instruments on every track.
This album really crept up on me. When I first got it I liked it well enough but assumed it wouldn’t get much playing time. But months later, I find I can’t get this thing out of my CD player and it’s emerged as one of my very favorite albums of the year.
Monsters of Folk is a perfect blend of sounds and sensibilities, combining Jim James’ haunting tenor and experimental song structure, Oberst’s Dylan-lite phrasing and delivery and Ward’s more straight-forward alternative acoustic rock. The men, all of whom have distinctive, lovely voices, sing beautifully in harmony and trade verses on some tracks. The material encompasses straight-up folk music as well as a muscular nod to 60s pop (‘Say Please’), a track that feels ripped from the Johnny Cash songbook (‘A Man Called Truth’) and so much more.
James opens and closes the album with a pair of hypnotic religion-themed songs that feel like holdovers from the Evil Urges sessions. ‘Dear God’ is an open letter to the Big Guy reminiscent (in theme) of XTC’s song of the same name. Final track ‘His Master’s Voice’ imagines a dice game between Christ and Mohammed.
But it’s not all such heady stuff. Ward’s ‘The Sandman, The Brakeman and Me’ is a gentle lullaby about falling asleep on a train, and one of the loveliest tracks on the album. ‘Slow Down Jo’ is an equally pretty track cajoling an over-eager twenty something into taking it easy.
In reading about this album around the Web, I’ve found that each of these guys has a rabid following that looks to attribute everything great on Monsters of Folk to their hero. And looking at it from that perspective, the album does seem a bit like an arms race, with each track an attempt by the next batter up to top the last one. And whether or not that was the intent (my guess is it wasn’t), the result is three expert songwriters/performers producing some of their very best material.
And I think that’s what distinguishes Monsters of Folk from the other supergroups that have emerged this year… this album doesn’t feel like a lark or a side project. It feels like four guys bringing out the best in each other.
‘The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me’:
‘Slow Down Jo’: