By Michael Mandeville ’11
Musical collaborations usually turn out one of two ways. Amazing, like anything featuring Kanye West, or dreadful, like anything featuring Akon.
For indie folk super group “Monsters of Folk,” the collaboration turned out wonderfully.
Five years ago, the stars aligned when stunning folk figures, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and M. Ward collaborated for a tour under the banner “An Evening with Conor Oberst, Jim James, and M. Ward” which included an appearance of the PBS program “Austin City Limits.”
These faces of modern folk rock would play each other’s material in a two-hour conglomeration of awesome city to city tour for about a month back in 2004, but it didn’t stop there.
About two years ago, the four musicians assembled again with the prospects of collaborating on an album.
Though it wasn’t released until September 2009, the self-titled “Monsters of Folk” accomplishes exactly what it had intended: to provide a 50-minute collection of songs that complement each of the musicians’ strongest talent as rounded musicians, especially in folk.
The album begins far from prediction with “Dear God (Sincerely MOF),” accurately an indie “slowjam,” full sensuous versus that only angels sing—until now. With the blend of the repetitive drum beat and a harp-like lead, and a cluster of lovely vocal harmonies and exchanges between James, Oberst and Ward, the track precisely introduces an album in a way nobody expected, and not in a bad way.
The super group, though respected for their other more notable works, embraced their folk fathers in tracks like “Baby Boomer” and “Goodway,” which alludes to classic folk heroes Simon and Garfunkel as well as the material found on Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zeppenlin III,” dripping influence from the veins of the songs.
“The Right Place” puts the “folk” in folk rock, with a mixture of that oh-so folky twangy slide guitar, hearty vocals provided by James and obscure metaphors about elephant tusks that make you holler, “now that’s folk!”
Though most tracks revolve more around the full band structure, tunes like Oberst’s “Temazcal” strip down and really embrace Oberst’s play-on-words songwriting that makes you tingle inside (it’s okay, I’ll admit it for you). Ward’s “Sandman, the Brakeman and Me” captures his dreamy, hollow voice more brilliantly than any other track on the album.
The album wraps up epically with “His Master’s Voice,” which builds up to a climax leaving James’ and his fellow “monster’s” voices ringing in your ears for days. Well not exactly that long, but that is not the point.
The album is really extraordinary, to say the least, and a must for any fans of Oberst, James, Ward and/or Mogis, or just fans of folk rock in general.
The super group performed at Phoenix’s Orpheum Theater in late October. Check for the review of the group’s performance in the next edition of The Roundup.
Check out Monsters of Folk online at myspace.com/monstersoffolk.