Monsters of Folk’s Monsters of Folk

cover art for Monsters of FolkLately I’ve been listening to a lot of … well, old music. As in, music from my own youth. It’s been a little hard to avoid, actually, what with the two big releases of the summer — Neil Young’s Archives, Vol. 1 and the remastered mono and stereo box sets of all of The Beatles albums. So it was with Neil Young’s Harvest and The Beatles’ Revolver and Rubber Soul still ringing in my ears that I sat down to give a close listen to the Monsters of Folk self-titled release. Lo and behold, I think M. Ward, Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Yim Yames (a.k.a. Jim James of My Morning Jacket) have been listening to the same things!

This album seems like a loving homage to the music of the Baby Boomers: Neil’s dusty wheatfield soul, The Beatles’ r&b-inspired pop and layered harmonies, a little Philly Soul, some Gram Parsons psychedelic country-rock and even a fairly explicit homage to that other rootsy ubergroup the Traveling Wilburys.

The three toured together as separate acts, using the Monsters of Folk moniker as something of a lark in 2004. They enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to do it again as a group, touring behind their own songs. So over the past couple of years, in various studios (including a home-made one run by Oberst and the multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, also of Bright Eyes, in their hometown of Omaha), they laid down tracks.

All three contribute from their strengths. Oberst heartfelt, emotional folk with strong images and sense of place, delivered in his plaintive, sometimes quavering voice; Ward similarly emotive but more oblique folk-rock with his sandpapery, burnished baritone; and James his keening tenor and alt-country style. Looked at another way, it’s Oberst’s heartland folk-rock, Ward’s bi-polar Oregon-California mix and James’s New Southern gothic rock.

Nearly all of these songs have a deeply spiritual element, and often an explicit reference to god. That starts with the opening track, “Dear God (Sincerely, M.O.F.),” which is the track where I hear Philly soul — syncopated chick-a-chicks from the hi-hat, strings, echo-laden falsetto scatting vocals, even a harp, or probably a synth programmed to sound like one. It’s a heartfelt prayer of spiritual questing in a sexy-sounding dance-floor song. It also sets the album’s modus operandi; all three of the singer-songwriters (Ward, Oberst and James) contributed to the writing, all three take turns on the verses and all play different instruments.

“Say Please,” the first single, sounds like Revolver-era Beatles, with a powerful electric guitar solo from Mogis and big four-part harmonies on the chorus. “Whole Lotta Losin’,” with Ward on lead vocals, is catchy roots rock a la the Traveling Wilburys, with some fat twangy baritone guitar from Mogis. “The Right Place” puts James’s vocals out front in a Flying Burrito Brothers-inspired country rock song, complete with steel guitar, psychedelic guitars and tinkling honky-tonk “tac” piano.

No actual “folk” yet, but “Man Named Truth” takes care of that. It’s like some combination of Marty Robbins and Dylan epic, in the style of a slightly rocked-up Appalachian ballad, with mandolin, jangly guitar and more of that baritone guitar from Mogis. And Ward takes the lead on “Goodway,” an Arlo Guthrie-style folky shuffle.

Some of the songs are more obviously influenced by one of the three individual writers: “Temazcal” draws on imagery from Oberst’s recent time spent in Mexico; “Slow Down” could be an out-take from Ward’s latest release, Hold Time; “The Sandman, The Brakeman and Me” gives us some of Ward’s trademark country blues fingerpicking behind James’s lead vocals; and the final track, “His Master’s Voice,” sounds a lot like a My Morning Jacket song — or so I’m told by some friends who are fans. I’ve never been able to get into MMJ, or Bright Eyes for that matter, but this release certainly encourages me to give both of them another chance.

Mostly, though, it stands on its own as an entertaining exercise in collaboration by four young men who are at the top of their game. The album doesn’t generate much in the way of fireworks, but plenty of light and a little heat at times. Look for this on my year’s best list.

(Shangri-La, 2009)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

More Posts