Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Album Retrospective: Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk

Album Rating: B+
Monsters of Folk sounded like a colossal failure on paper.  That was because the band was made up of three different artists, three different audiences, three different sounds, and most importantly three different and large egos.  How could the sentimental and rambling style of Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) possibly coexist with the classical and scholarly sound of Matt Ward (M. Ward)?  How could the sexy and experimental style of Jim James possibly match the sounds of Oberst and Ward? How could they possibly blend three different song writing styles together in one album? How could they sacrifice their egos to make one song that wasn't trying to "one up" the other song? And how could they possibly convince us that this was actually anything more than a shameless promotion for their solo and group works?  To make this album a success each artist would have to sacrifice the identities they have worked so hard building, they would have to sacrifice some of their ideas, and they would have to come together to realize that the genre and this group was more important than anything they ever done.  Monsters of Folk being successful would be more than simply a pleasant surprise, it would be a greatest feat of altruism and a great example of sharing and sacrificing ego's for the better of a group or an audience: it would be the musical equivalent of Kobe and Shaq deciding to move in together to do a hilarious reality show, the musical equivalent of the Socialist and Fascist coming together to pass a law that actually helps people, it is the musical equivalent of McCartney and Lennon sharing a drink in the afterlife (Paul died in a car wreck, duh,) and it is the musical equivalent of Spider-Man and the other new Spider-Man deciding to make another movie with another Spider-Man.  Monsters of Folk being successful not only seemed implausible on paper, it seemed to go against everything we believed about human nature and human behavior in general.

But against all odds, Monsters of Folk is one beast of a folk experience. The main reason the album is such a success is because how much each member in the band sacrificed: they sacrificed their style of songwriting, they sacrificed their individual sounds that had made them borderline iconic in their respected genres, and finally they sacrificed being an alpha dog for being a total team player.  Monsters of Folk isn't an album that tries to combine Post-War and Digital Ash, it isn't an album that tries to combine the original sounds of Bright Eyes and My Morning Jacket, and it isn't an album that is constantly trying to blend three contrasting styles.  It is an album featuring three super talented artists (four if you count Mike Mogis) who want to make a folk album.  And that is why this album is so damn good.

The first thing that the band did well is find songwriting topics and interest that they all agreed on: they are all very curious about the existence of God and how he interacts with people, they are all songwriters who are interested in general political issues, they are all songwriters who are interested in finding the "right place," they are songwriters who are interested in telling people's stories (especially struggling people,) and they are songwriters who have a detailed appreciation of history and are fascinated by the way people interpret history.  Every song on Monsters of Folk is about one of these specific interests and it is one of the reasons the album uses all three of the bands songwriters talents so well: "Dear God" sounds like a jazzy combination of Oberst's "Waste of Paint," Ward's "To Save Me," and James "I'm Amazed," "The Right Place" sounds like a folky version of Oberst's "Sausalito," Ward's "Carolina," and James "The Day is Coming," "Baby Boomer" sounds like a slowed down version of Oberst's "Four Winds," Ward's "Big Boat," and James "What A Wonderful Man," and "Slow Down Joan" sounds like a ballady version of Oberst's "I'll Be Your Friend," Ward's "Undertaker, and James "Thank You Too." Monsters of Folk is an album that easily combines all three of the bands main members songwriting interest without ever sounding hyperbolic or exaggerated.

Even though the three main members of Monsters of Folk have proven that they can excel at just about any genre of popular music (punk, grunge, emo, country, pop, country, rock, electronica, space rock, and jazz) on this album they sacrificed all of their individual interests and goals to create a free flowing and excellent folk experience. Even though the members of the band sacrifice a lot of their interest to make a strictly folk album, just about every track on the album is pretty damn good.  "The Right Place" is one of the best folk songs of the 21st century so far, "Dear God" is a powerful and bold "cry for help" that actually ends up being one of the more relaxing and rewarding listens on the album, "Baby Boomer" is one of the best "group performances" on the album and is also one of the albums most well-written songs, "His Master's Voice" is the albums most beautiful song, and "Ahead of The Curve" is the albums most catchy song.

It is easy to think of Monsters of Folk as a great example of altruism and self sacrifice, but it is even easier to think of it as what it really is: three really talented musicians making 15 really good folk songs.  Even though three talented musicians working together so easily and without ego has become sort of taboo for our "me first" society, it really shouldn't be.  MOF were a band of three alpha dogs in a "dog eat dog" music industry that decided to share a good bark instead of deciding to eat each other.  When you think of it that way this albums sounds less heroic and more logical, less altruistic and more realistic, and less genius and more rational.  At the end of "His Master's Voice" you end up with just one burning question: "why the hell don't more artists do this?" And that in itself might make Monsters of Folk more than just a solid album, it might make it a trend setting album.

1. "Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)"
2. "Say Please"
3. "Whole Lotta Losin'"
4. "Temazcal"
5. "The Right Place"
6. "Baby Boomer"
7. "Man Named Truth"
8. "Goodway"
9. "Ahead of the Curve"
10. "Slow Down Jo"
11. "Losin Yo Head"
12. "Magic Marker"
13. "Map Of The World"
14. "The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me"
15. "His Master's Voice"

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