Monsters Of Folk

September 20, 2009

monstersoffolk Not every track on Monsters Of Folk, the self-titled album from the indie folk supergroup composed of Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis (both of Bright Eyes), M. Ward and Jim James (My Morning Jacket) is a winner, but standout material ranks among the best work these artists have yet done. While the majority of the album sticks to Americana, country, rock, pop and, of course, folk, it takes a surprising turn even now and then, too, as with the stellar opening track, “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.),” which has an old school soul vibe running through it, or “Losin Yo Head,” which melds power pop with a bit of psychedelic rock. The very best songs, “Temazcal” and “His Master’s Voice,” are startlingly good, lyrically provocative and strong, musically arresting and powerful, and are alone worth the price of admission here. Initial interest in Monsters Of Folk will probably be strongest among fans of its individual members, but the quality of its music deserves a broader audience as well. Standout cuts: “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.),” “Temazcal,” “Magic Marker” and “His Master’s Voice.”

cavesingersWelcome Joy, the second album from Seattle based band the Cave Singers, hits on an appealing mix of folk and Americana by way of Neil Young and My Morning Jacket, and classic rock by way of Fleetwood Mac. In fact, the latter influence, specifically Lindsay Buckingham’s, is so pronounced on some tracks, it’s as if Buckingham had formed a folk rock band. Of course, I mean this as a compliment, since Buckingham is a master musician. The music on Welcome Joy has a traditional sound to it, but it’s also inventive and diverting enough to distinguish itself from the large numbers of bands now working along a similar line. The lyrics are earnest and affirmative without being corny or cliched, which is refreshing in itself. All in all, this is a solid, enjoyable album, recommended especially for fans of folk and rock. Standout cuts: “Summer Light,” “In The Cut,” “Beach House” and “I Don’t Mind.”

missderringerIf you can imagine a really poppy X, or a Blondie produced by 60’s era Phil Spector, that’s what you’re in for with Southern California based band Miss Derringer’s third album, Winter Hill. Fronted by Liz McGrath and Morgan Slade, the band blends bluesy Americana, rockabilly, surf music, 60’s girl group music and a bit of punk into slickly produced indie pop tunes. The best songs, “Click Click (Bang Bang),” “Bulletproof Heart,” “Black Tears” and “Heartbreaks & Razorblades,” hit on just the right mixture of the above influences. Considering Miss Derringer’s influences, one would think the music on Winter Hill would have a bit more grit and fire, but alas, those qualities are mostly in short supply, which is a bit of a disappointment. However, if you can forgive the album for its lack of edginess and embrace its poppiness within, Winter Hill may be the album for you.

thelowanthemTo say that Providence based band the Low Anthem’s major label debut falls into the Americana genre would be accurate without being very descriptive. Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is an impressive mix of folk, country, blues and gospel, with a couple of raucous Bob Dylan and Tom Waits inspired tracks thrown in for good measure (“The Horizon Is A Beltway” and “Home I’ll Never Be”). They’re on firmest ground with their more country and folk inspired material (the rocker “Champion Angel” aside), notably the gorgeous opener “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin” and the mid-album “Don’t Tremble,” though “To Ohio” is an early highlight as well. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s certainly one full of promise, and definitely recommended for fans of country, folk and Americana.

wilcoAfter being declared “America’s band” eight years ago in the wake of the release of Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, it’s probably been a bit daunting being Wilco sometimes, with great expectations being heaped upon every subsequent album. Wilco (the album), as its title may indicate, is a notably relaxed affair, however, despite some advance press characterizing it as being “experimental.” There are some songs where they go where they haven’t gone before, as with the hard edged, eerie “Bull Black Nova,” but in general, it’s a easygoing pop album, with just the right mix of the lighthearted and the serious minded, sometimes in the same song. There are no real rockers, but there are some terrific midtempo numbers like “One Wing,” “You And I” (featuring Feist on vocals), “You Never Know” (the current single) and the lovely country and soul inflected number “Solitaire.” They close on a bittersweet, close to perfect note with “Everlasting Everything.” Wilco (the album) is perhaps not an album to change the world, but it’s certainly an album that will make you feel better about being a part of it, and when it comes down to it, maybe that amounts to the same thing, really.

secretprofanesugarcaneRecorded with T-Bone Burnett over a three day period in Nashville, Elvis Costello’s latest release, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, is probably the very definition of a mixed bag, but as such, it holds up pretty well just the same. This is Costello in country/Americana mode, and since it’s a collaboration with Burnett, it’s been compared to King Of America, though this album is not nearly so carefully crafted nor is it as serious minded as that 1986 release. What is it is very entertaining, and I expect that was the primary intention here. The album includes four songs written for an unfinished commission about Hans Christen Andersen, duets with Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris and a couple of songs written with Burnett. Burnett the producer has assembled a crack team of musicians to back Costello, so musically it’s always a pleasure to listen to. It’s not on the level of his finest records, but Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is still great fun in its best moments, and certainly recommended for Costello fans and fans of Americana and country music in general. Standout cuts: “My All Time Doll,” “Hidden Shame,” “I Dreamed Of My Old Lover” and “The Crooked Line.”

samanthacrainStellar debut for Oklahoma based Samantha Crain and her band, the Midnight Shivers: Songs In The Night is charming, infectious and wonderfully confident, and features 11 songs that whiz by all too fast, all firmly in an Americana mode, with just the right mix of folk, blues and country. Crain’s vocals are reminiscent of Jolie Holland, but stylistically, her spirited music has more in common with Mary Lou Lord and Richard Thompson. Her band is first rate, and they are reportedly pretty great live (and currently on tour as of this writing). This is one of the albums I’ve played a lot so far this year, and it always puts a smile on my face. Songs In The Night should elevate Crain and her band into the top ranks of Americana and folk bands. Standout cuts: “Rising Sun,” “Songs In The Night,” “Get The Fever Out” and “Bullfight (Change Your Mind).”

romancandleSometimes you hear a great single, and the album actually fulfills the promise of that single, rather having it as its sole highlight. I listened to Chapel Hill based band Roman Candle’s first single, “Early Aubade,” from their latest LP, Oh Tall Tree In The Ear, more or less at random, and immediately had a new favorite song. It starts out forcefully then gradually falls into a reverie, or the reverse of what you ordinarily expect a rock song to do. The album followed two weeks later, and it turned out the single actually closes out the record. “Eden Was A Garden,” another great song, starts out quietly, then opens up with the same country rock force with which “Early Aubade” begins. The rest of the album is as artfully crafted, though its art is subtle and unpretentious, as are the poetic and literate undercurrents that run through the song lyrics. Listeners may immediately be reminded of Wilco when first exposed to Roman Candle’s music, but a more proper comparison would be Okkervil River, another band who has taken familiar elements of rock, Americana, folk and country and made them into music that feels vital, powerful and utterly of the moment. Every now and then, an album comes along and reminds me what I love about rock music, and right now, Roman Candle’s Oh Tall Tree In The Ear is that album. Standout cuts: “Eden Was A Garden, “Why Modern Radio Is A-OK,” “Big Light” and “Early Aubade.”

outersouthOuter South is the first official release from Nebraska based singer/songwriter Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band (Nik Freitas, Taylor Hollingsworth, Jason Boesel and Macey Taylor). It’s a true collaboration, as six of the sixteen tracks were written by Oberst’s bandmates, with one song, “Worldwide,” written by Oberst for Taylor to sing. Oberst and the band sound pretty great together, and at their most inspired moments, they recall great bands like Neil Young and Crazy Horse or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I imagine that they will make a terrific live band. So the music making certainly isn’t an issue on Outer South; what is an issue, however, is that the superb musicianship on display here is in the service of an album that is frequently meandering and unfocused. The record as a whole never really finds a tone, and instead jumps from song to song, which works fine for a while, but then starts to sound a bit haphazard over its 70 minute length. Lyrically, it’s a bit haphazard, too, Oberst’s material as well as that of his band mates. The lighter material (i.e. “Air Mattress,” “Nikorette”) often seems to work the best, as the weighty material gets bogged down somehow or just falls flat. All that said, as uneven and flawed as Outer South is, there are enough high points to merit a listen, as the good tracks are very good, and it’s fun to hear how well they have clicked as a band. It may not be a great album, but it has enough moments of promise to make me look forward to what they come up with the next time out. Standout cuts: “Slowly (Oh So Slowly),” “To All The Lights In The Windows,” “Air Mattress,” and “Nikorette.”

elvisperkinsindearlandThough this is the second release from Elvis Perkins, Elvis Perkins In Dearland is the first release with him billed as part of his band. Though I enjoyed Ash Wednesday, Perkins’ debut, this second album is even better, as the songwriting on Elvis Perkins In Dearland is even more assured this time around. If there’s a single influence that comes through the most, it’s maybe Tom Waits, whose mastery at combining sentiment and sly humor with the most experimental of music surely inspired Perkins and his band here, especially on tracks like “I’ll Be Arriving” and “Doomsday.” The music, a sometimes lush, sometimes raucous mix of folk, Americana, rock and jazz, is first rate, performed by a band with an impressive range. Definitely recommended. Standout cuts: “Shampoo,” “I Heard Your Voice In Dresden,” “Send My Fond Regards To Lonelyville” and “123 Goodbye.”