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October 14th, 2009 12:00 am Casey Jarman, Michael Mannheimer | Music Stories

Monsters’ Ball

Supergroups aren’t always so super.


Being a member of a supergroup isn’t easy. First, you’ve gotta share the songwriting credit and acclaim with other dudes. Then comes the inevitable lukewarm review of your first album. The truth is, these starpower-heavy outfits rarely live up to the sum of their parts: too many egos and too many styles often means acts that focus on “getting back to basics.” A good supergroup is always entertaining, but—like sports teams constructed with too many aging stars (ahem, Gary Payton and Karl Malone joining the Lakers in 2004)—rarely championship material.

So, as Monsters of Folk—the quartet of indie luminaries Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), M Ward and Mike Mogis (uh, Bright Eyes)—makes its Portland debut, we look at how the foursome stacks up against three of the most impressive supergroups in history. Sorry Billy Corgan, Zwan just missed the cut.

The Highwaymen

Members: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson
High point: 1985’s Highwayman, which is a great balance of low-key, friendly fraternizing between country mega-stars and heartfelt balladry. It’s only slightly marred by ugly ’80s production.
Low point: The 1995 bar-blues anthem “It Is What It Is,” a fun but ridiculous latter-day attempt at blues-rock hitmaking. The “Highwayman” video (on YouTube) is real bad, too.
Legacy: The Highwaymen may have helped jump-start Johnny Cash’s then-fading career—it certainly helped give ace songwriter Kris Kristofferson some much-deserved credit. Unfortunately, with Cash and Jennings both passing away in the past decade, there’s not much hope for a reunion tour.

Traveling Wilburys

Members: Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, George Harrison
High point: “Handle With Care,” the Wilburys’ first collaboration originally intended as a B-side to Harrison’s single “This is Love.” Even after 20 years, the song remains one of the finest pure-pop moments of their careers.
Low point: When Dylan, arguably the greatest lyricist ever, sings, “If you let me drive your pickup truck/ And park it where the sun don’t shine” in “Dirty World.” Who does he think he is, Prince?
Legacy: Monsters of Folk wouldn’t exist without the spontaneous, good-times vibe of the Wilburys. And as mediocre as much of its material was, at least it got Dylan away from touring with the Grateful Dead.

Crosby, Stills, Nash Young

Members: David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young
High point: Though CSNY began as a trio, it wasn’t until Neil Young’s arrival in late 1969—just before the group played its second show together at a backwoods festival called Woodstock—that the band became a certifiable hit. Subsequent album Déjà Vu still stands as one of the finest albums of the early ’70s, blending Young’s fiery guitar playing with some of the sweetest harmonies this side of the Beach Boys.
Low point: 1994 album After the Storm, which, besides having one of the most hideous album covers of all time, made even the ’90s output of the Stones sound decent.
Legacy: Indie rock circa 2009 is all about smooth vocal harmonies, and Fleet Foxes owe some credit to these guys. CSN is still touring, raking in the dough with the boomer set and hoping Young will ditch singing about electric cars for another run at the money.

Monsters of Folk

Members: Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, M. Ward, Jim James
High point: The quartet’s self-titled debut disc opens with a very cool, beat-driven and Sade-esque sexy jam addressed to God. That sense of adventurousness is hugely refreshing, but it only stretches the first few tracks before it’s impeded by too many acoustic guitars.
Low point: Though these dudes sound pretty singing together—and, let’s face it, look pretty good just standing around—the more resigned tracks on the debut run together. Also, Conor Oberst’s beard in “The Right Place” video makes him look creepy. Why would you wanna cover up that cute li’l baby face!?
Legacy: Time will tell. Expectations were very high, and most critics have not been particularly kind to the group thus far. But the foursome has genuine chemistry that may yet win out, should they re-form after the current tour. Our dream is pretty simple: We hope the Monsters inspire Will Oldham, Jason Molina, Bill Callahan and Bon Iver to start a rival group.
SEE IT: Monsters of Folk play the Schnitz on Wednesday, Oct. 14. 8 pm. $42.50-$53.25. All ages.
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