- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Monsters of Folk
Monsters of Folk
Shangri-La Records

The Monsters of Folk aren’t monsters, and they’re not really folkies either. The ad hoc quartet brings together talents from across the indie-rock spectrum — songwriter Conor Oberst and guitarist Mike Mogis of the trio Bright Eyes, Jim James of My Morning Jacket (here credited as Yim Yames) and singer-songwriter M. Ward. The band name is, of course, a nod to the durable heavy metal tour that featured bands that favor spiky perms and superfluous umlauts. It’s a sly, self-mocking way of announcing both their super-group status and the fact that they don’t take such designations too seriously.

Comparisons to super-groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Traveling Wilburys don’t hold up. MOF’s members are boutique names with passionate fans, while the Wilburys were (almost to a one) rock legends, while the various members of CSNY were proven hit-makers by the time they joined forces.

Think of MOF as more hootenanny gone wild — a packaged backstage strumming session that shows off each musician in turn, but doesn’t forge a new unified sound. The album scuds from Mr. James’ disco-inflected howls to Mr. Ward’s easygoing ramble to Mr. Oberst’s plaintive intensity.

But “Monsters of Folk” isn’t a dumping ground for songs that didn’t make the cut on other albums. To the contrary, it appears that this collaboration had the effect of raising the standards of the individual members. Mr. Ward’s contributions sound better than anything on his last solo album, “Hold Time.” The album’s best moments come when Mr. Oberst and Mr. James harmonize behind Mr. Ward. On the pleasantly meandering “Slow Down Jo,” the shimmering harmonies are joined by the pulled-taffy twang of a pedal steel guitar and arpeggios tapped out on a steel drum.

Mr. Oberst takes the lead on “Man Named Truth,” probably the closest thing to a true folk song to be found here. It’s a furious ballad that blends stiffly strummed chords with finger-picked arpeggios. It blends a spiraling Johnny Cash-like crime ballad with eerie effects that sound lifted from an Ennio Morricone western score. His best track is the deceptive “Ahead of the Curve,” which kicks off as a boastful, optimistic come-on that quickly devolves into desperation. Mr. Oberst’s delivery is uninflected, almost deadpan, but it’s not clear if the song is meant to be mocking, tragic or both.

The tracks sung by Mr. James are the most elaborately orchestrated, and the least likely to be confused with anything resembling “folk.” As is the case with his My Morning Jacket work, there are equal measures of soul, alt-country and prog rock, with Mr. James using his sprightly, ranging voice to great effect.

“Say Please,” a rousing three-minute track, comes across like the climactic song from a 1980s teen romance. Mr. Mogis unspools an impressive electric guitar solo that spans two full verses. Mr. James also takes the lead on the ambitious “His Master’s Voice,” a questing, spiritual song that bookends nicely with the album’s opener, “Dear God (Sincerely, M.O.F.)”

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