Mon, Sep 21, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Lo-fi and low-key

Even in the cross-pollinating world of indie rock, Monsters of Folk is something of a rarity

By Melena Ryzik  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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The Monsters of Folk claim not to remember who exactly came up with their name — some smart-aleck roadie or tour manager or booking agent. But they know that it’s tongue in cheek, sort of. The foursome — Conor Oberst, 29, better known as Bright Eyes; Matt Ward, 35, better known as M. Ward; Jim James, 31, the frontman of My Morning Jacket, who lately prefers to be known as Yim Yames; and the producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, 35 — are all outsize names and voices in indie rock. But they’re about as threatening as a knock-knock joke. Or maybe a noogie.

Hanging out together in a SoHo hotel room recently, they seemed one boyish wisecrack away from giving each other one. Their evident camaraderie is also audible on their self-titled debut album, out tomorrow from Shangri-La Music. Given their musical stature, the record was highly anticipated in indie circles as a collection of finely wrought songs with no overarching theme except that they are not all that folk. The collaboration — and the name — was spurred by a 2004 triple-bill tour, when they discovered how well they got along.

“The world needed a Monsters of Folk,” James said, sitting on an antique green couch, his arm around Oberst. “And we answered the call.”

What did that call sound like?

James howled and said, “It sounded like dying Virgin Megastores and dying newspapers, dying trees, collapse of an empire, rebirth of a nation.”

Ward, who had made coffee for everyone and was serving it in espresso cups, piped in. “We all have a lot of the same instincts about the music,” he said. “There’s just a lot of overlapping circles, I think it’s safe to say. I think we started developing trust, the way a family would.”

Bearded (James, resplendently; Mogis, modestly) and wearing scruffy outfits (Ward, flannel; Oberst, embroidered hippie shirt), they did look sort of familial — a family of lo-fi kingpins. (By consensus, Mogis, the producer, is the father figure.) But even in the cross-pollinating world of indie rock, Monsters of Folk is something of a rarity, with three singer-songwriter-guitarists, all essentially in their prime in terms of critical appreciation, robust fan bases and artistic sway, and a common audience.

Bloggers and reviewers have been quick to call them a supergroup, a thorny label. “The very problem with the word supergroup is that you do expect it to be times four, and I think this is going to be much more qualitative than quantitative,” said Bobby Haber, chief executive of CMJ Network, which tracks music trends among college-age listeners. “I think these guys want to go out there and do what they’ve always done, but just do it together.” Given their lengthy careers, he added, “I think it’s going to be embraced.”

But to hear the band members tell it, the project was a lark done mostly for their own pleasure.

“We were all really, really curious to see what would happen if we actually made the record and what it would sound like,” Ward said.

The three songwriters contributed five songs apiece, and each sang lead on his own material. Mogis collaborated on finishing each track, and all songs are credited to the group, with the members playing all the instruments. Their styles and voices — winsome and gravely for Ward; plaintive and twangy for Oberst; lyrical and roots rock-y for James — remain distinct, even on songs like Say Please, the first single, in which they harmonize.

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