Few things instill a greater mix of anticipation and trepidation in music fans than a supergroup. We hype them to a god-like status long before they’ve written a note together and then find ourselves shocked when the gods we’ve lauded are really men struggling to merge their inflated artistic egos. We are the arbiters of our own misfortune, and the supergroup is the catalyst for our collective disillusionment.
Thus, a healthier way to view Monsters of Folk, from the act that combines the prowess of indie rock icons Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis(of Bright Eyes), Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and M. Ward, is not as a supergroup’s album but rather as a mixtape.
The mix starts off with two of the best songs to come out of the indie scene so far this year. The heartfelt “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)” finds the singers each getting their chance to address the creator of the universe. Each, James, Ward, and Oberst respectively, beautifully showcases his vocal and lyrical styles in the context of a swirling, melodic strain that connects to the deepest emotional center of the listener. The effect is absolutely thrilling.
Next, the mood shifts to upbeat roots-rock, ala The Traveling Wilburys, with “Say Please,” wherein the singers again harmonize and trade back and forth lead vocal duties, not to mention some thrilling guitar work. The resulting song is endlessly catchy, and the energy of the group is infectious.
These two collaborative tracks are a perfect example of hooking the listener early, of jumping out the gate with a start so great that it makes you want to keep listening all day long.
From here, the concept of a mixtape becomes more applicable while the quality of the songs becomes unfortunately more debatable. While the first two tracks give every member of the band ample opportunity to be heard, the rest focus mostly on one person at a time, with the others providing simple backup. In these songs, personal preference will be the key to the listener’s enjoyment. Each artist clearly brought several songs apiece to the table for this project, and how you feel about the music will probably be based on how you feel about each songwriter's other work.
Jim James, for example, is very prominent on “The Right Place” and “Losin Yo Head,” each of which bear the mark of My Morning Jacket’s early albums with their down-home alt-country vibe. He is also alone for most of “Magic Marker,” a soft campfire jam.
For Oberst fans, Monsters of Folk contains gems akin to his recent solo work. “Temazcal” is poetic and meditative, while “Ahead of the Curve” is large and rocking. His lyrics continue to impress. “Pain was hunting me down, but I gave him the slip/I left the city through a tunnel and I headed for the sticks/With oregano oil and a morphine drip/Pain was hunting me down, but I gave him the slip” he sings on “Man Named Truth,” painting the perfect image of the troubled vagabond he has evoked for years.
It’s the songs by M. Ward that may give listeners the most trouble. Ward’s voice is like a humid summer’s day; it’s thick and warm and beautiful, but it can easily put you to sleep. It doesn’t help that most of the tracks he’s written for this group creep through the speakers at a snail’s pace and a mouse’s breadth. “Slow Down Jo” is haunting and sweet, but so slow that an impatient listener will feel as though they’re swimming through molasses.
Still, a lot of fun can be had by picking out the intermittent backup vocals and moments of creative juxtaposition, when one member or another inserts himself into a song at the most unexpected of moments. James’ signature falsetto graces several songs so softly you might not notice until the tenth listen that he’s been there all along, hovering above the rest of the music.
And it’s in these moments that Monsters of Folk are at their absolute collaborative best, three of the most distinctive voices in independent music coming together for the purpose of making brilliant sounds rather than to inflate their heads. Integrity and fun over marketing and egotism? If only we could be so lucky with every would-be supergroup.
(This post previously appeared in the Minnesota State University Reporter)