Monsters of Folk Monsters of Folk

[Shangri-La; 2009]

Styles: The Traveling Wilburys’ second album, what I imagine Chickenfoot would sound like if they were simpering assholes instead of cocksure assholes
Others: Uh, you know who’s involved in this, right?

Blame it on the Jenny. After all, if M. Ward, Conor Oberst, and Ben Gibbard hadn’t come together for a forgettable cover of The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” for Jenny Lewis’ also-forgettable 2006 solo bow, Rabbit Fur Coat, this whole Monsters of Folk affair may not be occupying the minutiae of our collective consciousness. Then again: Gibbard and Lewis are out, Jim James and über-producer Mike Mogis are in, and the project takes its so-dumb-it’s-really-dumb nom de plume (what, was “Gangsta Motherfolkers” taken?) from a tour the newly-minted quartet embarked on back in 2004. So maybe I’m just misogynistic.

Either way, two things are certain: these guys made an album together, and it is long. Not “long” as in “epic” — only one song in the 15-song set barely pushes the 5-minute mark — but “long” as in, “Why have outtakes if we could fit everything we recorded onto one CD?” Based on that assessment, I don’t have to tell you about the quality control exercised on Monsters of Folk, but I will anyway: it’s nowhere to be found. There’s no sense of cohesion or flow between any of these songs, partially due to a clear lack of thought devoted to these conceits, but mostly because every M. Ward- and Conor Oberst-penned song sounds the same lately.

In Ward’s case, that’s not a bad thing; over the course of his last several solo albums (as well as his Hazlewood-esque role in She & Him), he’s been quietly perfecting his own brand of nostalgic folk-pop (although one can unfortunately deduce that his once-worn John Fahey records are gathering dust somewhere). Perfection can be a gift — and, at times, it is here, as evidenced by the lovingly languid pacing of “The Sandman, the Brakeman, and Me” — but it can turn any brand bland; the lazy Beatles pastiche of “Whole Lotta Losin’” (who’s he kidding with that false open?) comes off as trite, whereas “Baby Boomer” seems to be a near-insulting write-around of one of Ward’s best solo songs, Post War’s “Chinese Translation.”

Oberst’s situation is even more dire; the guy’s been treading water in the same political-hogwash pool since he wrote the silly “When the President Talks to God.” It’s as if he’s forgotten what makes his brand so sporadically enthralling — the wrenching details of post-adolescent ennui — by letting those let’s-not-even-talk-about-it Bob Dylan comparisons go straight to his very ideologically confused mind. “Man Named Truth” is so typically fuck-the-world that it’s hard not to mistake it for a well-composed prank, and “Temezcal” is the kind of sonic back-handed amateur travelogue that makes Dylan’s “Mozambique” seem authentic in comparison.

A fair amount of hay has been made about James’ presence as the highlight of Monsters of Folk, and the claim’s not without merit. When he’s not adding serene backing vocals to complement the record’s white-bread ordinariness, his lead takes on “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.),” “His Master’s Voice,” and “Say Please” offer desperately-needed respite for weary listeners. The only problem is that when you hear James’ voice, you wait for one of those titanic riffs that My Morning Jacket are so expert at uncoiling, but they never come. Hey, MMJ: please save us from more of this.

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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