Disappointingly characterised by a rather bland and saccharine air.
Luke Turner 2009
A collaboration between Bright Eyes’ indie eye candy Conor Oberst, his Bright Eyes bandmate Mike Mogis, singer-songwriter M. Ward (most widely known for his She & Him project with the actress Zooey Deschanel), and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Monsters of Folk is a pleasant enough, but ultimately unrewarding, excursion through a pasteurised, skimmed and attractively packaged-in-plastic take on raw, warm and bubbling American roots music.
If America’s folk revival received its greatest commercial success with Simon & Garfunkel, Monsters of Folk is a continuation in a similar vein, only without the peculiar dynamic, soaring pop that that pairing offered. Like much of what has been bracketed with the term in recent years, this isn’t folk the sense of traditional songs that are in some way bigger than those who pass them on in a rich oral tradition. Instead, it’s ‘folk’ as a catchall term for any music made using an acoustic guitar, banjo, the odd trill of fiddle and flute and a few harmonies, released with rustic signifiers on the sleeve.
In reality, this merely sounds like an acoustic spin off of Bright Eyes or M. Ward – fine if that’s how it had been labelled, but the titling of this project as Monsters of Folk feels disingenuous. Indeed, the clicking beats and processed harp of the cringingly titled Dear God (Sincerely MOF) sounds like an overly-produced 80s curio. The 50s rock‘n’roll of Whole Lotta Losin’ similarly has reedy-sounding synths, but the rollicking’ chorus comes across as a novelty that you could imagine advertising family ribs ‘n’ fries night at a Midwest restaurant with tables of cheap Formica and menus where the laminate is peeling.
Monsters of Folk is a frustrating record in part because of the participants’ undeniable ability to hew memorable songs from their multi-instrumentalism and individual, distinctive vocals – the urgency of Man Named Truth is a clear example of this. But ultimately this collection is characterised by a rather bland and saccharine air, the songs often falling short of matching the contributing musicians’ own ventures. Those seeking a more evocative treatment of the American pastoral would do better to seek out Grizzly Bear’s wonderful Veckatimest, Wye Oak, or Bon Iver’s Volcano Choir project. For there are no rough edges here, a fact signified by the thorn-less fauna adorning the record’s sleeve.