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Reviews

Each week, we’ll post a new review of something random (and not necessarily tech-related) we’ve come across in the last week and post it here. After then, we’ll archive it as a post.

This week, Mike reviewed the eponymous debut by the Monsters of Folk, the supergroup of M. Ward (Bright Eyes), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Jim James (My Morning Jacket). Enjoy!

Ahead of the Curve

I have an uneasy relationship with ‘supergroups’. On the one hand, one of the earliest records that helped defined the music I love was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu, which was given to me by my Woodstock-attending mother when I was about 15. It accelerated my burgeoning love of Neil Young and everything he touched into a full-on idolization, as well as introduced me to the rather vague genre of folk-rock. There were other supergroups that also sat well with me over the years, such as Clapton’s Derek & The Dominos and Blind Faith projects, the chintzy Traveling Wilburys, and even Billy Corgan’s Zwan. I guess Broken Social Scene, Gorillaz and the Postal Service can be thrown in there as well, but their membership and/or physical existence have always been a bit too vaguely defined. These bands showed that talented individuals could come together and make music that was generally as good as whatever they were doing outside of their bread-and-butter music-making. In recent times, however, the supergroup has become the domain of either washed-up 80s hair-metallers or some bastardization of whatever’s bouncing around the pop / rock charts that week. Audioslave tried to cash in on the waning fame of Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden, (as well as the death of nu-metal), in a way that Chris Cornell hadn’t done since Temple of the Dog. Velvet Revolver, Chickenfoot, Tinted Windows, Cobra Starship and Heaven and Hell will hopefully all be seen as musical pranks by the annals of history, but as it stands, they embody the supergroup at the end of the 00s.

Matt Ward is probably best known as the ‘him’ in She & Him, although his solo records, released under the deceptive moniker of M. Ward, surpass everything he’s written to date with Ms. Deschanel. Jim James, or Yim Yames as he seems to want to be called now, is the lead singer of My Morning Jacket; the man who drenches himself daily in reverb. Conor Oberst is the snide and sniveling, although intelligent and somehow endearing, mastermind behind Bright Eyes. Mike Mogis, a journeyman folk musician, has appeared on records by Bright Eyes, M. Ward, She & Him, Tilly and the Wall, The Faint, Cursive and Julian Casablancas, to name a few.

Like the proverbial Captain Planet, when their folk powers combine, they create the Monsters of Folk. While it’s hard to draw a direct line from Déjà Vu to Monsters of Folk, this record seems like an attempt to remove the lame associations that have been building up around supergroups. There still seems to be a gimmicky nature to the band’s existence (check out their debut on Conan), but I’d say it feels more akin to the Wilburys than Cobra Starship, and as with Roy, Tom, George and Bob, the music’s not half bad either. Unlike most supergroups, where the musicians come together to create some bizarre approximation of all their styles, the Monsters have managed to create songs that encapsulate the sound of each individual artists’ work. “Temazcal” sounds like an upbeat Bright Eyes song, “Baby Boomer” would work on Hold Time, and “Magic Marker” could’ve been the closing track on newer My Morning Jacket albums.

On most tracks, the other musicians attempt to compliment whoever is the driving force behind that particular song, using harmonies in a very Graham Nash / David Crosby way. On other tracks, though, such as the first single “Say Please”, they trade off verses, rather like how jazz bands trade fours. Both methods are effective and I think both are necessary to make this album the success I feel it could be. You’ve got the songs that will draw in the Bright Eyes, MMJ or She & Him fan, but then you’ve got songs that sound like the Monsters of Folk. While I wouldn’t say I prefer the showcase songs over the collaborative songs, or the reverse, I do feel that it’s on songs like the single where it really feels like these guys have created something new, where the individual talents meld into a collective work. The varying styles leave the group open to exploration on a potential follow-up, rather like the Raconteurs’ debut (another not-so-super-but-not-bad-group), and I hope it’s something the guys are thinking about. This would be a solid start to an interesting side-project for all involved, rather than the one-off gimmick I’m afraid it might turn out to be. I’ve got my fingers crossed that 2012 will see the release of the a more mature and even more cohesive Sophomore effort from the Monsters of Folk, and maybe the reforming of Zwan. I can only hope.

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