Thursday, October 1, 2009

Modern Day Hipster Folkies Make Beatles Proud

I guess my whole dissection of the current state of Indie and the presence of the rootsy/folksy/southern styling’s in so much that is released of late started with a little jab at the Beatles. It seems only fitting that I’ll lay the topic to rest for a bit with a complete circling of the wagons.
Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk

A few months back Jim James of My Morning Jacket release an EP of George Harrison songs under the moniker Yim Yames. This in and of itself could be of little interest to a casual listener, but alas, for the likes of LTME this raised much interest as well as concern. For starters, I love Harrison and I am very much a fan of his contributions to the Beatles and rock n’ roll. I also love Jim James’ voice. This should be a perfect marriage. The EP is solid, but still uneasy. ‘Jim James’ ? Why? James seems to force odd and eccentric these days and his lyrics and direction have suffered as a result. I know this is the year the Beatles got famous again so it seems oh so fitting that James wanted to get this album out in the public. However, I knew it was just the start of what was coming.

I caught the Bright Eyes and ‘Special Guests’ set on Austin City Limits latenight back a few years ago. I have had an up and down love it or leave relationship with Conor Oberst from the onset. He was tagged as such a brilliant prodigy at such a young age that the hype of being the next ‘Dylan’ had to weigh heavy on him. But damn if the boy wasn’t depressed as all get out. It wasn’t until I heard Another Traveling Song that I bothered to really give Bright Eyes it’s just listening – thanks for the rec Pickle.
I’m Wide Awake and It’s Morning may have emo tendencies but it’s also a stunning album once you get past the politics. This marked Conor’s entry into the alt-country world, a stunning approach to that which Ryan Adams had been so desperately attempting for years. But what was most interesting about the songs Conor played under the Bright Eyes tag on ACL was the guests. The second Conor stood next to Jim James and they began to pluck away at Golden something tripped in me. It was a messing of worlds that I never thought would occur. Needless to say I had a major under appreciation for the Indie world at the time and not much of an understanding of the ‘community’ amongst the artists. I didn’t know much about M Ward aside from the name so upon finishing the show I grabbed another Bright Eyes album, this time Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground and a selection of M Ward tunes. After a while I lost focus on this collaboration and continued ahead with My Morning Jacket as well as keeping tabs on Conor.

At the beginning of the year M Ward released a powerful album in Hold Time, he re-entered my world. Not long after news began to swirl about the reuniting of these artists along with Mogis. I listened and explored, excited.

With such diverse backgrounds and seemingly opposite directions each artist was working in at the onset of ’09 the collaboration seemed. Conor is now head over heels into alt-country, M Ward has been experiencing the most success his career has known with She and Him as well as massive praise for his own release and James is still coming to terms with super-stardom and mixed praise on Evil Urges and a swelling fanbase. Mogis has been Conor’s right hand man for ages, so the foursome have a LOT to live up to.

Where would they take the music? Could James heavily influence his love of funk/reggae and bizarness? Will Conor insist on loner ballads and trite lyrics of depression and loss? Will M Ward be more of another name but not much of a true contributor with so much else on his plate? Can Mogis bring them all together?

The Verdict:

Success, but not what we expected.

Most Beatles fans mark Let It Be as more than just the final album, they see it as a metaphor for what the band had become, four separate entities trying to mesh together to sound as one. Often when artists reach a critical point in their career they find solace in the folk music/country rock world. It’s easier to not meet expectations and the music can soothe the soul of the artist. It can also be seen as a copout.
So now that I’ve played MOF several times over I can’t get past the stunning similarities between it and Let It Be. MOF almost want you to feel this, they almost want to pretend they are modern day Beatles at the twilight. Dear God, these folks have made a Beatles album!

Assuming you’ll go along with this let me engage the topic. To pigeonhole Jim James as Harrison is easy, James clearly wants to be Harrison in this mess, but he could just as easily be Paul…both find a way to drop some of the most frustratingly simplistic lyrics at the worst times amidst such great songs. That aside, we’ll keep things easy and leave James to be George. Ward is Paul, or the Walrus, however it is that you want to see him. He’s kinda the smiling face and comforting force to the band. His contributions to MOF never dazzle, but they are the most consistent and rewarding. His stays true to himself and finds great success amongst the others. Oberst is John, obvi. There is more hit and miss with Oberst, more look at how complex and important my work is compared to the rest. Oberst is as talented they come these days, but like Lennon, he’s also full of shit and pretty annoying. Mogis of course is Ringo. The backbone, the one that can take the heat, keep everyone together and keep them moving forward and focused. In a way this band can be seen as three monsters and a folkie, and for the role of folkie, Mogis earns his keep. I dare say this album would have been quite bad were it not for someone like Mogis in the room. The product we are given however works and works well at times.

But, just like Let It Be, despite its ability to ‘work’ it ultimately Lets You Down.

James takes the lead on the opening track and his touches are all over it, but thankfully he soon finds his role as one of the guys as the album rolls on. Conor has some high points and lyrically he is as good as he has ever been. Where James will sing about Magic Markers, Conor is telling the story of everyman in a tough world. Mogis’ work keeps the variety of sounds and styles together and the mixing allows for a unified feeling to the album, making so many individual tracks truly play as an album.

In my mind, Ward is the highlight of the album. His voice never wavers and his acknowledgment of the others and the way he plays off them shines of so much more comfort than the others. When James sings it sounds like a side project of MMJ, Conor sounds like his solo stuff but Ward makes you believe this MOF this is legit and that they’ve got legs to stand on in their own right.

Dear God is really the only song where the workings of James’ obsessive adobe slabs comes to play, it’s a good song, but not a powerful enough of an opener for what’s enclosed. Whole Lotta Losin’ has a looseness and life to it that hints at the band hitting their stride and giving a glimpse of the certain to be highly energetic live performance. The Right Place is the noted single and perhaps the most successful in effort for what MOF is striving towards both musically and lyrically. As has been the calling card of James and Oberst of late, remind people that if what they are doing makes them happy and if it makes them feel good, then it’s alright. I for one can’t argue with that when it comes to music. This mantra pretty much sums up my thoughts on the genre as a whole and MOF embrace it well.

Map of the World is pretty much a throwaway and I’m not harping on James, I just expect so much out of him that I find his silliness disappointing. But the real winner is The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me. This song is just perfect. Not surprising it’s Ward that carries the track and brings home the vibe the best while everyone else is still very much involved.

I believe that it is fair to toy around with the idea of these guys trying to make a Beatles album; I think they’d get a kick out of it. Shoot, more likely than not the jokes already on me.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again in summary of the album and the topic. Music is all about feeling good. It’s about reaching people with a message and a vibe. The message hear is strong and good and the vibe with honest and true.

Monsters of Folk didn’t make a landmark album, but they have formed a truly inspiring band.


1 comment:

Andy said...

Our opinions of Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes are incredibly similar.

I am a big fan of I'm Wide Awake (it's sound design and lyrics somehow never fail to send my brain off dreaming), and Digital Ash contains some unqualified gems. Plus Cassadaga, though on a whole, is too fast and loud for my tastes, it does hit some good notes.

I like his Oberst-released stuff as well, leaning toward his solo album than the Mystic Valley Band work.

Great info, LTME. I'm looking forward to listening to Monsters of Folk. It's been on my Amazon wish list for a while now.