R.E.M. Tag

The Decemberists Make a Prince of a Record

The Decemberists – The King is Dead
Capitol | Released January 18, 2011

Let’s face it – the Decemberists aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. They’ve fallen into the good graces of literary fans, literate celebrities (oxymoronic as that may be) and people who like pirate AND Victorian references delivered by the bar band that will forego the complimentary drinks until AFTER they’ve played. They’ve created the most clever lyrics this side of Stephen Merritt, and can still threaten to create a children’s book.

Well, I’m part of their target audience (an English teacher who loves Victorian literature!); but, as a long time fan (their debut, Castaways and Cutouts, is still one of my favorite albums), I have to admit to becoming less enthusiastic upon each successive release. Where their sound was still hyper-literate, their fragility was beginning to lose its appeal to me.

So it is with a welcome relief that The King is Dead features a band more comfortable showcasing its musical chops, rather than relegating them to frame Meloy’s wordplay.

Their sound isn’t heavy – like the more aggressive sound of their last release, The Hazards of Love – but simply fuller. Meloy’s often twee, and affected, vocal stylings (its distinctness being a sometimes blessing, sometime curse) have been somewhat tempered here – which might bother some longtime fans…but endear those who weren’t. Though Jenny Conlee has always provided perfectly capable female accompaniment (along with her solid work on keys and organ), there’s no denying that Gillian Welch’s presence brings an air of maturity that Meloy seems to be stepping up to. Their solid chemistry is apparent right off, with opening track “Don’t Carry it All”.

Rumor has it that this record was recorded in (near?) a barn – and that would explain many things, including the overall “twangi-ness” of this their 6th long player. This shows up in “Calamity Song” – where it’s impossible not to hear Peter Buck’s signature guitar sound (recalling Reckoning-era REM), and a more than healthy nod to the Southern roots of Americana. This trend continues with “Rise to Me” – lap steel (Mr. Chris Funk’s handiwork is subtly apparent throughout) carries this tune, with harmonica bookends.

“January Hymn” might be one of the prettiest songs they’ve created – no mean feat, a poetic way to signal the most contemplative season – and the creation of one of their richest records.

In the eyes of this fan, it’s good that the king is dead; long live the Decemberists.

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