On their own, singer-songwriters Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and Jim James have such distinctive styles that they can border on the predictable. Even together as the supergroup Monsters Of Folk (alongside frequent Oberst collaborator Mike Mogis), the trio remains essentially recognizable. Ward’s boardwalk balladeer persona is all over songs like “Goodway” and “The Sandman, The Brakeman And Me,” while “Temazcal” and “Ahead Of The Curve” have the tick-tock folk-rock lope of latter-day Bright Eyes. Even Jim James—whose My Morning Jacket has become more wide-ranging in style as the years have gone by—sounds predictably eclectic, whether he’s delivering Monsters Of Folk’s opening trip-hop prayer “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)” or serving up the Southern-fried funk of “Losin Yo Head.”
But a strange kind of alchemy occurs when the three join forces. Maybe it’s the way their voices blend on certain choruses and bridges, or maybe it’s that their songwriting styles sound less repetitive when spread around on an album. Maybe it’s just that a competitive spirit has driven each to bring his A-material. Whatever the reason, Monsters Of Folk is a real pleasure, full of songs that are loose, catchy and likeable. When Ward, Oberst, and James trade lines and guitar licks on “Say Please,” “Baby Boomer,” and “Whole Lotta Losin’,” they recall The Traveling Wilburys not in a tongue-in-cheek way, but sincerely. They sound like four talented guys enjoying each other’s company, and inviting listeners to join them. They’ve even been thoughtful enough to provide plenty of chances to sing along.