Monsters of Folk's Mighty Fine Debut

Sep. 7, 2009
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Full disclosure: I don’t much care for M. Ward. I find his songwriting nearly as dull as his listless, smug voice, and I find his invocation of vintage American music to be disingenuous, just another affect he slathers over his flimsy songs.

I admit this now not to rip on a performer I’ve mostly held my tongue about for the past half decade, but to give context to my endorsement of the debut Monsters of Folk album, a record I enjoy despite believing one of its primary players fundamentally unpalatable.

In this Traveling Wilburys-styled supergroup, Ward shares equal billing with Conor Oberst, Jim James and Mike Mogis. The latter may not have the name recognition of his bandmates, but he’s no less essential. As a keen producer and versatile side player, Mike Mogis was a primary (albeit behind-the-scenes) architect of the classic Saddle Creek sound, helping to make pop dozens of releases by Bright Eyes, The Good Life, Rilo Kiley and the like. Monsters of Folk, then, shares the same gathering-of-friends spirit as the heyday Saddle Creek albums, where the players bounced ideas off each other until even the most half-formed ones became realized. Those records often welcomed a sprawling ensemble of guest players; here the cast is limited to the four, but Mogis confidently carries the extra weight, fleshing out the songwriters’ work with tuneful flourishes.

James is a revelation here, too. His beautiful yowl opens the record on “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.),” which, with its trip-hop synths and drum loop, could have been a holdover from My Morning Jacket’s Z—an immediate indication that, despite the band’s winking name, Monsters of Folk isn’t remotely a folk record. Oberst takes the lead on “Say Please,” over a pining, lovable chord progression exuding the same twitchy exuberance he flaunted with abandon before shelving Bright Eyes. He’s on the top of his game throughout, his storytelling sharp and his phrasing daring. “I fell in love with identical twins,” he chimes over the spaghetti western twang of “Man Named Truth,” “They lived 34 summers between the two of them.”

And as for Ward? Sure enough, his drowsy, John Mayer drawl slows the record to a near-halt, especially in its second half, but there’s always the promise of a better song around the corner—the languid Ward low-light “Slow Down Jo,” for instance, is chased by the rousing James rocker “Losin Yo Head.” M. Ward is a double order of anchovies baked into Monsters of Folk’s pizza. It’s a testament to how tasty the other ingredients are that even with all those anchovies, you still can’t resist going back for a second slice.


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