Arty ‘Monster’

A supergroup usually forms for a simple reason: Talented musicians who happen to be friends enjoy playing together and decide to make a record. This holds true for the members of Monsters of Folk, but something deeper is at work. The indie-rock quartet, made up of M. Ward, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis (best known for his work with Bright Eyes), is bound together by a shared search for spirituality, a search they expand and explore across their eponymous debut record. Ward, the most gifted guitarist in the group, looks for the profound in the sensual; Oberst, the key lyricist, is contemplative to the point of obsession; James, with his ethereal voice, suggests church bells urging the listener’s ear heavenwards. Mogis, the only member of the group who does not sing on the record, acts as the band’s animating spirit, unifying its elements through his multi-instrumentalism and production. The record’s 15 tracks follow voice, guitar, word and spirit through their collective attempt to make sense through sound.

The album can be divided pretty neatly into two types of songs. The first is defined by a loose sensibility; the band is having fun, trading verses and playing recklessly. The best example of this is “Losin’ Yo Head,” which rattles and clatters along with a deep sense of joy in creation. The second and more successful type, exemplified by “Map of the World,” finds the band working within the style of a particular member, but fleshing out and deepening his earlier work. On “Map,” one of Oberst’s standard metaphorical musings is slowly wrapped in Ward’s rich guitar, and is eventually washed away in James’ plaintive howl. A similar dynamic plays out on “Sandman, The Brakeman, and Me,” to a similarly strong result.

The record is not without its flaws. It is deeply ambitious and, as a result, constantly skirts implosion. Oberst is polarizing, alternately appraised as a generational poet and a self-serious schmuck in a sweater (to his credit, his worst impulses are all but absent from this project). And as the apotheosis of a certain segment of the indie world — think beer and beards, irony and iTunes — the record has a very specific and pretty narrow target audience. Despite these flaws, the Monsters of Folk succeed on their own terms, pushing themselves and one another onto new and surprising ground. Depending on one’s prejudices, it just might be something sacred.

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