I’m not going to sit here making you read something you, with very good chance, already have read somewhere else. Ok, maybe I am. Anyhow, if we are to be a little objective here, Monsters of Folk is pretty much what it is. There’s not so much more to it than that, mainly because the whole concept of the band and its long-awaited debut album is so half-arsed.
You all know the drill, don’t you? If not, I’m here to make a long story short. Or perhaps more accurately: I’ll make four different, separate stories that converge into one with this release short. There’s Conor Oberst, the man who has been plucking a guitar since he was like 12 to the amazement of what could be considered the very first indie generation of the ’90s — of which he is a VIP member. Then there’s M. Ward, warden of the great Americana heritage that Johnny Cash left behind. Who else? Oh yeah, Jim James, one of the most successful prospector’s of the American alt. rock gold, leading the hungry squadron My Morning Jacket. At last, but certainly not least, there’s Mike Mogis, prolific producer of many high-profile guitar-based indie albums in the 2000s, among them a more or less consistent collaboration with Oberst’s near semi-legendary main outfit Bright Eyes.
To expect a monstrously awesome debut from a quartet of such fine names would be like waving a flag of victory when the battle hasn’t even started. Even though each individual is capable of great things in his main work, in which they all usually put their most effort, the eponymous don’t deliver quite the sense of unison, brothership and teamwork you’d taken for granted. Undoubtedly, they are at least partners in crime for picking a name this tongue-in-cheek and self-aware. In the end, it turns out they’re mostly being self-indulgent.
Brandishing with the watchword folk they drop a decent amount of songs that sound less like the combined inspirations from such bright minds and more like (why yes, you have read this exact statement in other reviews) solo songs from one or another of the contributors. Whether it’s Ward’s anti-Americana or Oberst’s introvert folkpop or James’s actually pretty smooth bearded-folk-man adaptation we’re compassing, Mogis, somewhat safe behind the production role, still try to tame this straggling bush of roots rock that makes up Monsters Of Folk.
The material is diverse but the quality isn’t exactly a roller coaster ride — for better and worse. It’s all just pretty… bland… as this sort of pleasant folk can be. Although I could have done without some of the more country-leaning compositions, such as the rushed, ragged country-pop-tinged “Whole Lotta Losin'” or the pedal steel school example “The Right Place”, in a time when indie’s folk is supposed to counter the mainstream’s horrifically powerful countrypop scene in the battle of the land of forefathers and patriots called America.
Now, I’m not your lone ranger seeking to hogtie this posse and ride away letting them get to know the country they’re singing of face to face. There are absolutely a few peaks as beautiful as any hoodoos I’ve been lucky to see. The slow and drowsily exquisite “Slow Down Jo” is one of Ward’s most beautiful affairs and one of the album’s highlights since it’s one of the few tracks where the quartet create some might fine vocal harmonies. The ending “His Master’s Voice” is another highlight. And though it might be considered wandering a little too close to Fleet Foxes territory (why wasn’t Pecknold invited here?), with a little help from Mogis’ outstanding production, the band stays on the right side of a potential bash over that matter. The Monsters actually reach their tops when they are musical neighbors with their much praised but considerably younger brethren foxes.
A complete and astounding standout, however, is the soulful and excellently cooperative plead to the Almighty: “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)”. With a subtle and charmingly matter-of-necessity trip-hoppy beat, delicate, dreamily, heavenly guitar-plucking and string arranging the four saints of folk here pull off one of the most elegant songs of 2009. The rest of the album comes rather as a surprise after this very promising album opener. The potential concealed within this renowned quartet is conveyed at its best in the serene chorus following the verses where each feller gets a chance to sing his mind. The concept is not least half-arsed and executed perfectly. It’s a darn shame that the rush of blood to the head wasn’t consistent throughout the album.
Nah, Monsters Of Folk wasn’t the bandwagon we thought we hopped on, a whole lot of reviewers have already expressed that thought. All the while the Monsters ride in through one ear and directly out the other I do have a pleasant time I might just someday forget in my scour of the land of traditional American music. It’s time to kill the grand thoughts of a new Traveling Wilbury’s or a less political Crosby, Stills & Nash. This album ain’t the one to claim a spot in the history books, but perhaps a forgotten, dusty gem for future indie generations.
Monsters Of Folk
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