Monsters of Folk, ‘Monsters of Folk’ (Shangri-La Music)
Supergroups suck. Even the ones that don’t totally disappoint (Blind Faith, CSNY) are always somehow less than the sum of their parts. Into these dicey straits lurch the cheekily named Monsters of Folk, a collaboration among My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, indie-folk strummer M. Ward, and Bright eyes cohorts Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis. Their album opens with James earnestly intoning, “Dear god, I’m trying hard to reach you,” over jittery electronics, a cascading synth-harp riff, and stark beats; it closes with James abandoning that quest on the gorgeous, fingerpicked celebration of secular humanism “His Master’s voice.” But this is not the story of lost faith that these thematic bookends seem to augur, but rather just a bunch of really good songs that have relatively little to do with each other.
Oberst, Ward, and James trade lead vocals on a few tunes and weave haunting harmonies throughout, but it’s not difficult to discern who the lead actor is on each cut. Everyone brings A-list material: oberst’s sharp wordplay tumbles out over an intoxicating acoustic guitar figure on “Ahead of the curve”; Ward supplies the dreamy, imagistic “sandman, the Brakeman and Me”; James keeps contentment from sounding goofy on the loose, rootsy “The right place.” But it’s unclear what these guys bring to each other. Maybe that makes this supergroup exactly the sum of its parts.