Saturday, October 3, 2009

Monster Mash

The Monsters of Folk is the collaboration of indie-folk superstars Conner Oberst of Bright Eyes, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and M. Ward known for both his solo work and his collaboration with Zooey Daschanel called She & Him. Also on board is Mike Mogis, who produces and plays on most Bright Eyes albums. Each of these performers have their own distinctive style and the question of course is, what happens when you put the three in a recording studio together?

From the opener, it's obvious that James (My Morning Jacket) is the only one who can really sing. That's not to say that Oberst and M. Ward don't have compelling voices, but James could pull off a Marvin Gaye cover with little difficulty. The first song also sets the stage for a beautiful and exotic journey, that sadly, is never fully realized.

What essentially happens on this record is that each performer is given space to write the type of music they normally write for their respective projects. Instead of getting an album of collaboration and achieving something fresh by synthesizing each of their styles, you get a Bright Eyes song that Jim James and M. Ward harmonize on, a My Morning Jacket tune with Conner Oberst singing backup and an M. Ward song... you get the point.

Not that this is entirely a bad thing. Each of these performers are capable of writing wonderful songs in their own right, and there are some great ones here too - the aforementioned first song, "Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)" is a sexy Motown juggernaut. "Man Named Truth," is a fun, "Devil Went Down to Georgia," style hoedown, while "Goodway," is a Tex-Mex Oldetimey jam from your grandfather's a.m. radio.

What you get here is both a sample of each songwriters best and least interesting work. The middle of the album is bogged down with a few too many country-rock tunes that make you miss the bold atmospheric textures the album opened with. Particularly, the Conner Oberst songs are often so mellow and reminiscent of Southern-California 70's country music that it makes you miss some of the emotion he displayed on earlier albums (Desaparecidos anyone?).

There's nothing here that makes you reach for the skip-ahead button and a few stand out tracks for sure (The Jim James sung "Losin' Yo Head," is a blast of palette-cleansing fresh air) but there's also nothing revelatory either. Perhaps it's unfair to think there should be, but when three of the most highly-touted indie-folkers get together (and call themselves Monsters of Folk, no less - though I'm guessing that's meant to be ironic) it's hard not to expect a little more.

To be fair, if this were a debut album by some unheard of band it would probably be easier to be objective and heap praises. Truth is, if you are a fan of one of these artists, you're probably a fan of all three and you will probably enjoy this record for what it really is - an album of solid, melodic and pretty good folk-rock.

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