In all fairness, there's that ridiculous name of theirs'. Monsters of Folk. Any knee jerk, involuntary roll of the eyes can be forgiven on the preposterous designation alone. Not to mention the sometimes natural reluctance to embrace bands of this make up. After all, super groups rarely live up to their billing, watering down individual talent without ever really defining the collective identity as a whole. All of this is par for the course kind of doubt, of course, and once it's run its' course, I' guessing you'll relax just a bit. Because the collaboration between Jim James, Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, and M. Ward plays like a harmless, fraternal order of sorts. This here's a polite crop of folkies messing about in the studio, enjoying each other's company, and making what is a fairly solid showcase of their songwriting prowess along the way.
Still, the cohesive tie that binds this collection together is not altogether obvious as the highly anticipated album plays through. For their part, each musician brings their own distinctive attributes to the project, and it's heard in the songs each leads. Oberst - the album's highlight - assumes the more recent role he's cast himself in these last few years. This isn't the stuff of Bright Eyes' loathing, self-depreciation, but rather the more exotic, well-rounded fare he's penned under his proper name. Tracks like "Temazcal", "Map of the World", and "Baby Boomer" flirt with Oberst's recent attraction to Mexico; queue organic hand claps, muted, minimalist hand percussion, and plenty of cinematic, classical guitar trills.
Ward to is also true to form, bringing long time tendencies for drunken riff rockers ("Whole Lotta Losin'"), feel good, failing songs ("Goodway" - Ward proclaiming how he "learned a good way of saying goodbye"), and that thick and hazy ambient thing he seems to do so well ("Slow Down Joe").
If anyone sounds just a bit out of step, it'd be James (perhaps that explains that brand new pen name of his? Yes Mr. Yames?). As the quartet's most restless musician, his tendencies to roam sound a bit held in check here, most likely for the sake of his more conservative brethren. Yes, the album's hypnotic opener "Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)" is a pleasant piece of semi-southern-soul. But the required, banner raising rock and roll song "Losin' Yo Head" is both long and restricted (it shouldn't have been required), and "The Right Place" a bit too hokey in its' meandering peddle steel and parlor room piano plunks.
Regardless, the four horsemen of the folk-acalypse do turn in a nice overall effort. If pleasant sounding tunes accentuated in sopping wet harmonies, great melodies, and manageable lyrics is your thing, by all means...have at 'em. Just don't expect to be required to batten down the hatch when these monsters come a'calling. - David Pitz