For this ‘super-group’ collaboration between M. Ward, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes/Mystic Valley Band) and Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes/Lullaby For The Working Class/producer for hire) the comparisons with ‘70s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young have been lazily and too quickly applied. For whilst there are telekinetic group harmonies and balmy Laurel Canyon vibes within this debut Monsters Of Folk LP, the key difference is a colossal lack of ego and cocaine-sprinkled arrogance. All four bring their talents to table to either serve as strong individual dishes or to be shared as communal platters. Together these fifteen songs (five apiece from Ward, James and Oberst) gel together for a diverse feast that should sate the appetite and broaden the tastes of the group’s inherited fanbases.
Inevitably, given his open-handed prior donations to other extra-curricular projects (with the likes of Jenny Lewis, She & Him, Howe Gelb, Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket and Jolie Holland), Ward is the most proficient at working outside of his own box, so his contributions here glow the most brightly. The delightful rockabilly-pop bliss of “Whole Lotta Losin’” and “Baby Boomer”, as well as the strummy bluegrass of “Goodway”, would have sounded great on his recent Post-War or Hold Time long-players. Elsewhere, the sublime near-solo “Slow Down Jo” and “Sandman, The Brakeman And Me” both echo the too-forgotten intimacies of his sophomore End Of Amnesia. The added vocal lines and intuitive instrumental interplay with his bandmates only magnifies Ward’s magic touch here.
Oberst – probably the most highly-strung of the singing-songwriting core trio – benefits from having his more histrionic impulses tempered but not tamed by the company of simpatico but gently challenging musical friends. The gritty rustic “Man Named Truth” and “Map Of The World” sound like terrific left-overs from Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga or I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning; the atmospheric voice-layered “Temazcal” could give Fleet Foxes some cause for concern; and the rousing “Say Please” gives the whole ensemble room to affectionately egg-up the Traveling Wilburys correlations. Perhaps only the mid-tempo country-plodding of “Ahead Of The Curve” feels like a makeweight product of Oberst’s penmanship.
Jim James certainly brings the most wildcards to the game. Seemingly suffering from some sort of identity crisis of late (prompting his adoption of the daffy ‘Yim Yames’ moniker for a recent George Harrison covers EP and for this album’s sleeve-credits), his compositions produce some of the most intriguing and strangest moments for his bandmates to stir into the collective melting pot. The drum loop, sample and falsetto-driven “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)” is a delicious soul-inflected opener that stretches the foursome beyond previous comfort zones, as does the ghostly “His Master’s Voice” with its spectral ambience. Less revolutionary but still endearing are two post-Sweetheart Of The Rodeo Byrds homages in the shape of “Magic Marker” and “The Right Place.” James/Yames only really comes unglued with the messy Crazy Horse-aping sludge of “Losin’ Yo Head.”
With only a couple of real missteps – that could have been eliminated by a less democratic division of songwriting labour to cut the tracklisting to a tighter 12 or 13 cuts – this first (and hopefully not last) Monsters Of Folk release happily proves that super-groups can be greater than the sum of individual parts, when kinship overrules narcissism.