"Magic Marker" /
Monsters of Folk
I bought this CD in early October, but I lent it to my college-age son -- and presto, just like magic, it disappeared into his music collection. I finally retrieved it at Thanksgiving, but by then I was deep into a self-induced Kinks coma and couldn't listen to anything else. In fact, thanks to the hangover from Kinks Month, I still haven't been able to listen to much new music lately. But I left Monsters of Folk on rotation on my CD player, and this week it suddenly jumped into the forefront. I'm digging it now, just as I suspected I would.
Background: Monsters of Folk is what's nowadays called a "side project" -- what we used to call a "super group" -- composed of Matt Ward (who records as M. Ward), Jim James from My Morning Jacket (herein given the endearingly goofy pseudonym Yim Yames), and Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes. I already had all of them on my iTunes, but I'd never have thought of mixing them together -- Bright Eyes' breathy pop cleverness, My Morning Jacket's rootsy earnestness, and M. Ward's snarky existential indie-folk seem to live in different realms. The first few spins, I felt compelled to tag each song as a Matt song, a Conor song, or a Yim song. But now I've relaxed into its overall genial vibe -- their collaboration seems more like Travelin' Wilburys than, say, Little Village -- and as each talent steps up to the mike, I can enjoy his distinctive idiom for what it is.
"Magic Marker" -- one of the Yim songs -- feels like the heart of the album for me. It's such a mellow, retro-sounding song, the first time I heard it I thought it was a cover of some well-loved old favorite (from some reason, I keep imagining it's late Graham Parker). Acoustic, with a gently rollicking rhythm, it pours out like maple syrup on pancakes. Like a lot of James' songs, the lyrics are a little opaque, but I like that; that laidback simplicity is deceptive.
There's something deeply reassuring about the chorus: "Ordinary don't mean nothin' no how / Look what's ordinary now." (I imagine Yim, in his flannel shirt and beard, flicking around the TV channels in disgust.) Who would want to be "normal" in a world where Lady Gaga and Russell Brand can appear on network TV? And I love the chorus's next image: "It's got a magic marker stain / On its face and it needs a shower." I can look around my desk right now and see papers defaced where some Sharpie has bled through. It's a striking visual detail that perfectly defines the soiled, spoiled nature of modern culture. Yim may be a Young Codger, but he's awfully sincere.
The first couple of verses baffle me, as if I just stumbled into an ongoing conversation. He's talking about some "frozen kid" (himself?) who's feel ostracized; it seems that he's gone out on a limb to impress somebody (a girl?) -- as he puts it, "All the freaked-out measures / I took, tryin' to make you sick of smilin'". But in the third and fourth verses, he hits his stride, with his central image of a Tootsie Roll Pop: "There's something sweet waiting in the center / Taste and see. . . . How many licks does it take to get / To the center where there's something sweet." Underneath all the poses, he promises her, is something geniune and wonderful; he's urging her to work a little to find his real self.
Okay, so that's all there is to it. Two arresting images -- the Magic Marker bleed-through and the Tootsie Pop -- and that dumbstruck remark "Look what's ordinary now," which gets repeated over and over, in Yim's hushed and husky vocal. Every verse more sounds get layered in -- another guitar, a dobro, a bass, synths, backing vocals, finally even drums -- but it remains gentle and light. With a minimum of fuss, Yim spins us through the shallowness of modern relationships, the tackiness of our mass culture, and the importance of being real -- and all without one bit of preaching or poeticizing. That hook seems so gentle, but it ingratiates itself until you wake up singing it. Like I said, syrup on pancakes. It's a winner.