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Monsters of Folk: NOV 8 Review- Wanee?
As Existential as Jaunty Old Pals Can Be
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By JON PARELES
Published: November 8, 2009
Monsters of Folk started playing before the curtain rose on Friday night at the United Palace, and they were playing when it came down nearly three hours later. They wore suits and ties like early-1960s folkies or a classic country band; their lighting was subdued and soft-focus, conveying vintage glamour in the gilded room. Yet within that theatrical haze the songs radiated sincerity, as the band members sang about seeking truth, purpose, faith or just reasons to go on. The songs were, mostly, about solitary quests, but they were delivered by a band of old pals.
The show-business touches presented Monsters of Folk as a rare apparition, and it probably is. Its members are three indie-rock songwriters who keep busy on their own — Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and M. Ward, who records solo and in various collaborations — along with Bright Eyes’ producer and utility instrumentalist, Mike Mogis. They released a self-titled album in October, and to tour they have added a drummer, Will Johnson, who’s in two bands, Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel.
Monsters of Folk are all roots-rockers, a convenient catchall that encompasses quiet acoustic fingerpicking, country shuffles, tambourine-tapping gospel, quasi-soul ballads and full-tilt, guitar-wringing folk-rock. They hark back to the ’60s of Bob Dylan, the Band and the Rolling Stones, and occasionally to the ’70s of Curtis Mayfield and Neil Young.
Monsters of Folk is a band of philosophers. Its songs don’t tell stories or profess love; they ponder existential questions. Mr. James considered God in songs like Monsters of Folk’s “Dear God (Sincerly M.O.F.)” and My Morning Jacket’s “Smokin’ From Shootin’ ”; Mr. Oberst drew proverbs from gritty details in Monsters of Folk’s “Man Named Truth” and Bright Eyes’ “Hit the Switch.” Mr. Ward hinted at folk wisdom in his “Chinese Translation” and mocked duplicity in Monsters of Folk’s “Good Way.”
They sang together, in solos and duos, and in other permutations, sharing one another’s songs. They harmonized Mr. Ward’s gruffness with Mr. Oberst’s quivery blurt and Mr. James’s keening falsetto. They simulated one another’s bands, recreating the country-rock stomp of Bright Eyes and the billowing guitars of My Morning Jacket. Mr. Ward played intricate solo ragtime guitar or pounded rock ’n’ roll chords on an upright piano; the self-effacing Mr. Mogis infused songs with mandolin, pedal steel guitar and dobro. The long set, interspersing songs from “Monsters of Folk” (Shangri-La Music) with material from the members’ own albums, didn’t begin to exhaust their repertories.
In songs written for their own groups, the band members often confess to deep dread and longing. But working together as Monsters of Folk, they’re more jaunty, cackling at mortality in songs like “Whole Lotta Losin’.” It’s male bonding in action — admit the fear, but don’t flinch in front of buddies.
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