Label: Rough Trade / Capitol
Artist’s Website: www.decemberists.com
Portland, Oregon’s most literate tunesmiths embrace their inner R.E.M.
Over the past decade, The Decemberists have established themselves as fine purveyors of lush pop music with a literary twist. Principal songwriter and lead singer Colin Meloy exploits every inch of his creative writing degree, crafting whimsical stories about subjects as varied as monarchs, gypsies, and shape-shifters. Having grown up a Smiths fan in Montana, he’s had a lifetime to explore the local library and his vivid imagination (and develop a thick skin in the process). The band has even crafted an entire record around a Japanese folk tale about a mystic crane. Not for them are stories about loose women and fast cars.
The Decemberists garnered a significant amount of college radio cred with their early recordings and the 2005 album Picaresque, before making the leap of faith from indie darlings to major-label artists for 2006’s The Crane Wife. With the leap came a step change in production values, expanding the breadth of their musical palate into more unusual instruments and ornate arrangements. The songwriting shifted as well; The Crane Wife unexpectedly drew on progressive rock influences as much as the usual Decemberist touchstones (sea shanties and ‘60s UK folk rockers like Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch).
In retrospect, 2008’s 14-track concept album The Hazards of Love seems like a miscalculation, perhaps too clever by half. While it would have been nearly impossible to out-weird a folky prog-rock suite about a magic crane, the new direction charted on Hazards of Love seemed more Bermuda triangle than Pacific paradise.
Which brings us to this year’s comeback album. The King Is Dead finally sloughs off most of the bookish Anglophile baggage of previous releases, choosing instead to explore the country and pop flavours of American indie college rock. Consequently the songs are shorter (only one clocks in over five minutes), more direct, and ultimately more enjoyable in a wider variety of listening situations. Instead of rivaling the intensity of a furrowed-brow poetry reading, The King Is Dead works well as an indie rock party record, a ‘driving in the car’ record, or even a ‘strolling down the avenue to fetch a latte and some new vinyl’ record.
The opening song “Don’t Carry It All” is a harbinger of things to come, sounding like a tighter and slightly drier take on Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels”. Fans of R.E.M.’s Murmur and Reckoning albums will smile and nod when they hear jangle-pop echoes of their college rock heroes in “Calamity Song” and “This Is Why We Fight”. “Down By The Water” even goes so far as to nick the rhythm and arpeggio guitars of “The One I Love”, but thankfully it feels more like a tribute than a shameless rip-off. Perhaps chalk that up to a guest appearance by Peter Buck, who contributes guitar stylings to three of these songs.
Elsewhere, “Rox In The Box” cross-pollinates an infectious melody with breezy accordion and violin while mid-tempo ballads “Rise to Me” and “June Hymn” contrast Meloy’s clear nasal voice with female harmony vocals, pedal steel, and harmonica.
Meloy & Co. followed up this album with the Long Live The King EP in November. The EP sounds a bit like the out-takes of The King is Dead, but does feature the gorgeous acoustic murder ballad “E. Watson” and the upbeat stomp of “I 4 U & U 4 Me”. At this point, the indie-prog fans they picked up with The Crane Wife might be itching to jump overboard and swim for shore. But while it’s hard to say which far-off land The Decemberists will set sail for next, it should prove to be an interesting voyage.