Monsters of Folk and the Seemingly Endless Sea of 2009 Supergroups
In the past, touting Monsters of Folk—a winsome outfit formed by Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and indie troubadour M. Ward—as the best supergroup of the year wouldn’t have meant much. But it’s a big deal in 2009, a.k.a. the Year of the Supergroup.
Ah, supergroups, those bloated Frankensteins concocted by two or more well-known musicians in what must only have been a moment of hubris or extreme inebriation. Supergroups, which, with their marquis names and zero chemistry, almost always feel like a Major League Baseball All-Star team: coddled, well-compensated studs getting together to do something that ultimately means very little.
So far this year we’ve already heard from Tinted Windows, a power-pop amalgam of fading semi-stars, such as James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins and one of those formerly adorable kids from Hanson. We’ve met the Dead Weather, a gang of indie-rock bad-asses assembled on a whim by Jack White, this one involving members of Queens of the Stone Age and the Kills. And we got Chickenfoot, which is not a podiatric affliction but a quartet of aging rockers you probably haven’t cared about since high school. Each of these projects has its selling points—Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick! Jack White on drums! Joe Satriani!—but whimsical team-ups like these would be enough to make a person skeptical. Assuming he wasn’t already skeptical.
Like other men of my age and temperment, my mistrust of the supergroup emerged in 1990, when Electronic’s debut single, “Getting Away with It” arrived in the U.S. as if heralded by cherubim, or at least “Melody Maker.” Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr, the life-changing guitarists from Joy Division/New Order and the Smiths, working together? Seriously? Just the thought of what magic might occur was enough to make me overlook that Neal Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys was also involved. Or that the tune itself, synth-pop at the outset of the grunge era, immediately felt dated. Because of my love of the two founding members’ other bands, I was guilty of liking the supergroup’s stuff before hearing it: premeditated infatuation.
But at least Electronic was a bona fide supergroup. The term has been misapplied so often that it could use some clarification.
1. For a band to be considered a supergroup, it must feature at least two well-known musicians. And unfamous members of well-known bands don’t count. We need successful solo artists or actual well-known members of well-known bands. How to define well-known? Gut check. For instance, in the Dead Weather example above: Dean Fertita, the rhythm guitarist of Queens of the Stone Age doesn’t fit the bill, but Jack White (duh) and Alison Mosshart, the lead singer of the Kills, do. I mean, Fertita is awesome. But could you pick him out of a police lineup?
2. The more well-known the well-known musicians involved are, the more supergroup-y the band is. A good litmus test here is Tinted Windows. Sure, it has Iha. But Zwan had Billy Corgan. Hence, Zwan trumps Tinted Windows, at least on the supergroup scale.
3. Equality matters. If one member is significantly more famous than everyone else, the supergroup smacks of a side project.
With apologies to Velvet Revolver and Audioslave, the truest supergroup in history—and this is not only based on the three rules above, but on any subjective estimation, really—was the Traveling Wilburys. George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. Now that’s a supergroup.
Monsters of Folk, whose debut album arrives September 22, fits the three criteria more perfectly than any other band that has come down the pike this year, and their music feels the most thought out. Consequently they shall be granted the coveted Supergroup of the Year award—unless Dave Grohl, Josh Homme and John Paul Jones are about to unleash a tour and album that I don’t know about. Oh, wait.
Check out Monsters of Folk’s first (and very Beatles-esque) single, “Say Please,” here.
Related “awesome” song of the month: Electronic, “Getting Away With It”
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