Album Review: Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk


Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk
Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk (Image courtesy of Shangri-La Music)

Let's start with the labels and get them out of the way. Yes this band is a super group. In indie-rock terms, it doesn't get much bigger than this. It's our generation's Traveling Wilburys. Perhaps I can only get away with it this month, but the expectations are that they could be The Beatles of our time. Never have three songwriters who sing come together for such a project in such a diplomatic way, even to the point of taking it on tour.

But who is who? Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) is baby faced like Paul, M Ward has collaborated with an artist, who he convinced to make music, but Zooey Deschanel just married Ben Gibbard! Jim James (My Morning Jacket) definitely likes to sing about his spiritual quest like George did, but Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) is definitely no Ringo! He's the special sauce, a multi-instrumentalist who adds especially tasty steel guitar and mandolin and produced the whole thing. In fact he might be a George Martin of our time, having produced more new stuff that we have played on The Current than perhaps anyone else. So it is a monster combination and if you are a fan of any of the three major players, then you will want to hear it. But, own it as an album? I'm still not sure you need go that far, unless it's to start your complete collection of Mogis' work!

Back to labels... folk? I think not. It's not that simple. There are many more flavors to this margarita. Indeed if you approach the work in chronological order, you are going to be convinced of that by track three, if you succeed in sitting through track one, "Dear God"! Personally, I'm not a fan of James' high-pitched voice, but he seems to regard it as his best quality and is the member who pushes his own envelope the most. Because of the subject matter, God, track one is both the most soulful track and the coldest. A clinical drum machine is balanced against James' angelic voice but they never quite mesh. Then Oberst and Ward sing too, and I would have liked more of this sharing the lead duties throughout. Here, however, it distracts from the meaning of the song. The rock roots are exposed on track two, "Say Please." It sounds great as a radio single, with the most blistering guitar solo of the whole album, apparently played by Mogis, despite the reputations of his cohorts. But if you approach this album as a fan of guitar interplay, then you will also be disappointed-it never really erupts again.

So many expectations, so little space, on one CD. Perhaps that's why they tried to have 15 tracks. But that doesn't work either, there is some filler here or at least tracks that could have been on solo releases. The promised alchemy that could only happen because of this collaboration is missing far too much, especially through the midsection of the album, after track six, "Baby Boomer," where the chemistry works beautifully.

In the end the biggest comparison I can make to the Beatles is that some of these songs could be big hits, given the right place to be played. "Whole Lotta Losin'" barrels along like a roadhouse blues staple that could get any party started right. "The Right Place" has some of that sweet steel and might not sound out of place on mainstream country radio?!? They're universally simple songs that have you singing along immediately.

Increasingly young musicians are jumping from one project to another more fluidly than ever before. The band that stays together for a whole lifetime is a fading artifact. A sequel of Masters of Folk might not be necessary but I'm glad their busy schedules and well developed egos allowed this to exist and I bet they put on a hell of show!