Given that, when they’re not in Monsters of Folk, I only care about the musical doings of half of Monsters of Folk, I’m not sure why I expected Monsters of Folk to blow my freakin’ mind. But I kind of did. And they kind of didn’t.
For those of you who don’t know (or care – either one is acceptable in this case), Monsters of Folk is an indie “super group” consisting of a dude named Mike Mogis (I think he produces Bright Eyes records), Conor Oberst (he definitely makes Bright Eyes records which I mostly don’t like), M. Ward (he is M. Ward and half of She & Him – he is also half of the half of Monsters of Folk that I care about outside of Monsters of Folk), and Jim James (he’s the bearded grizzly who sings and plays guitar – awesomely – in My Morning Jacket). Now, I’m a pretty big fan of M. Ward and a huge fan of My Morning Jacket, so I was somewhat interested in this whole Monsters of Folk thing.
And the tracks that mostly feature Ward and/or James are mostly all right. The only really outstanding track on the album, “His Master’s Voice,” comes at the end and is sung by Mr. James, perhaps the best vocalist in rock music right now (I often admit to liking less polished singers like Craig Finn or Tom Waits, but Jim James is a certifiably excellent singer). And when I listen to Monsters of Folk, I get ’round to “His Master’s Voice” and revel in it while I realize that what I really wanted from Monsters of Folk was M. Ward and Jim James in a room with acoustic guitars, playing whatever they felt like. I was never gonna get that because there are these two others dudes in the band and they don’t really add much to admire.
Monsters of Folk have been hailed (or not, depending on how you feel about them) as an indie-rock Traveling Wilburys and, I suppose, there’s some comparison to be made. A lot of the Wilburys’ songs were silly to the point of being ridiculous, but they were also undeniably awesome (especially on Volume One, when Roy Orbison was still alive). Monsters of Folk frequently hit on the ridiculous part without always making it all the way to the awesome part. James, as is his wont, steers the Monsters’ songs toward the arena of unrelenting beauty (something I’m not sure the Wilburys ever did), but he’s not the main dude on most of this album and (can you believe Pitchfork and I agree on this?) Monsters of Folk ultimately suffers because of it.
There are some good moments (the album opener, “Dear God” is not one of them, though it gets points for wanting to be a Smokey Robinson song) early on: “Say Please” deserves favorable comparison to, say, the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care.” “Whole Lotta Losin'”, which is mostly handled by Mr. Ward, is actually great – and it would fit perfectly well on an M. Ward album. Although its Jim James harmonies in the background make a compelling case for what I wanted this album to be – namely something that doesn’t feature Conor Oberst. One of the things I don’t like about Bright Eyes is how humorless Oberst seems, even when he’s cracking a joke. Monsters of Folk, sure enough, starts to bog down around “Temazcal” and – sure enough – Oberst is our featured vocalist (although I like the line “love we made at gun point wasn’t love at all”). There are good harmonies on the song but, and I can’t stress this enough, I could get that from My Morning Jacket and/or She & Him and come out much happier for my trouble.
Allow me to posit a theory: the Jim James tracks on Monsters of Folk are the best tracks because, of the three biggest players in the band, James is the one who is most adventurous at his day job. Oberst has been cranking out the same dreary, emo-troubadour stuff for all of the Aughts. Even Ward, who I like, doesn’t really stretch himself much on his albums (with the exception of the dreamy title track to this year’s Hold Time). But My Morning Jacket has gone from indie Lynyrd Skynyrd to… well, pretty much one of the best rock bands there is, indie or other wise. Evil Urges was a bold declaration of genrelessness and that, if you ask me, is why James is so capable of pushing Monsters of Folk out of the boring territory it so often visits in the hands of James’s collaborators. He takes the lead on the only real rocker on the album, “Losin’ Yo Head” (ridiculous title, I know, but the song kicks ass), follows it with the charming “Magic Marker”, and closes the album with its finest five minutes on “His Master’s Voice.”
I’ve waded through Monsters of Folk several times now and it has done all the growing on me that it is likely to do. I loaded the disc into Songbird (do you have Songbird? It’s essential if you listen to music on your computer. Get it here) and proceeded to remove the tracks that were the most offensive. What I’m left with is nine of the fifteen original tracks and I even kept an Oberst tune (“Ahead of the Curve”, which is actually fairly lovely, even for that dour Nebraskan). I didn’t resequence the nine, but I might later.
Even counting only the nine songs I liked, I’m still not wild about Monsters of Folk. I’m wild about Jim James and will listen to anything he does and I’ll keep listening to M. Ward (and She & Him, who are rumored to be putting out a new album next year). I guess if you love Bright Eyes as much as I love My Morning Jacket, Monsters of Folk might bring to life some musical wet dream you had and/or inspire you to write disturbing pornographic fan-fic (is there non-pornographic fan-fic? And if so, is it still terrible?) but you might do better purchasing the tunes you like from Amazon (no, not I-Tunes. Amazon songs are cheaper, they have better deals for albums, and they’re DRM-free) and letting them come up on random on your freshly downloaded and installed Songbird.
(Okay, brief review of Songbird: it has its buggy moments, but it’s really new. On the plus side, it organizes your music waaaaaaaay better than Winamp ever dreamed of doing and it will tell you when bands in your library are playing shows in your town. Also, it has a better playlist feature than Winamp and you can tell it to monitor your music folder so it automatically adds new stuff to your library when you rip it or download it. So Songbird is awesome. Try it. You’ll like it.)