They may call their supergroup Monsters of Folk—“they” being Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, She & Him’s M. Ward and producer Mike Mogis—but the genre identifier isn’t exactly accurate. Sure, the dusty-crossroads stomp of a cut like “Man Named Truth” and pervading themes of death and rootlessness nod respectfully to legions of Americana forebears. But chaotic clanger “Losin’ Yo Head,” Ward’s sparse, ethereal “Slow Down Jo” and at least half of the 15 cuts are lo-fi indie posturing at best. References to Tootsie Pops in a song called “Magic Marker”? Enough said.
There are windswept harmonies and hushed confessions aplenty, but there’s also a palpable sense of trying really, really hard to achieve something that’s more than just the sum of its parts. When purposefully eschewing anything that could be mistaken for a chorus, a plain old Oberst song like “Ahead of the Curve” is still a plain old Oberst song (ditto the wanderlusty “Map of the World”), no matter who else contributes a few acoustic-guitar lines or chimes in on the chorus.
At least the collaboration succeeds in steering James away from the more self-indulgent, funk-falsetto tendencies given free rein on last year’s Evil Urges. Any album pulling that off is nothing less than a minor success.