Monsters of Folk are a modern super group of sorts, its principles all highly-visible figures of alternative rock. Jim James (nee Yim Yames) is the titular leader of Southern eclectics My Morning Jacket. M Ward is the contemporary archetype of singer/songwriter, who in addition to performing appropriately solo, also does regular tours as part of a duo dubbed She and Him (with actress Zooey Deschanel). The peripatetic Conor Oberst now leads his own Mystic Valley Band, when not collaborating elsewhere.
What's unusual about the members of MOF is not so much that they choose to collaborate, but the fluid means by which they do it, sharing all songwriting credits and rotating amongst themselves on all the instruments they play. Mike Mogis (a member of Bright Eyes with Oberst) is formally the drummer, but also supervises the technical side of the work and his experience with studio engineering insures the multi-textured sound of this eponymous debut stands as one of its major virtues.
The sweeping acoustic guitars, with its own heavily-echoed vocals echoed near the end of the album on "The Sandman, The Brakeman and Me," ride the straight-ahead rhythm of "Say Please," a breath of fresh air after the arcane mix of click-track beats, James' falsetto and luminescent electric guitar that weaves in and out of "Dear God." The strains of harp that tinkle within the arrangement of the opening track provide the key to the tongue-in cheek undercurrent in the lyrics throughout these fifteen songs.
The arch humor there resurfaces in the gallop of "Whole Lotta Losin'": homage to the elemental rock of the fifties, a mix as attractive as that of the garage-band informality and Byrds-like chime of "Losin' to Head." "Temazcal" has substance of its own because its dream-like lyric imagery finds a corollary in the deeply echoed harmony vocals and dense arrangement. In contrast, the down-to-earth twang within "The Right Place" belies a set of lyrics bordering on the surreal, while "Slowdown Jo" suggests James is the linchpin of this group: he influences Ward and Oberst more than they seem to influence him.
The twists of his high tenor voice match the twists of his lyrics in "His Master's Voice." But "Baby Boomer," demonstrates how Monsters of Folk are creating a collective identity (the three major participants toured together five years ago). "Man Named Truth" sounds almost ordinary in its guitar-based accompaniment, except for its Joycean wordplay and, with the exception of "Goodwat," and, even more so the (mostly) forthright emotional expression of "Ahead of the Curve," a skewed sense of irony permeates the performances.
By the half-way point of this lengthy CD (seventy-three minutes plus, a double LP in one of its three available three configurations), it's well-nigh impossible to not become charmed by the warmth that radiates from this collaboration. A natural pleasure arises from their unique relationship between Monsters of Folk, nurturing the expert execution of a concept that looks highly improbable on paper.
Personnel: Mike Mogis: drums, percussion, effects; Conor Oberst: vocals, guitars, keyboards, percussion; M. Ward: vocals, guitars, keyboards, percussion; Yim Yames: vocals, guitars, keyboards, percussion.