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The Decemberists – [Album]

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Thursday, 13 January 2011

What do you do after you’ve taken a forgotten scrap of a musical style, dusted it off, polished it a bit and made it suddenly renowned? If you’re most bands, you ride that sound to the bank. If you’re the Decemberists, you work with it until it’s just south of everybody’s playlists, and then you drop it to find the next obscure artifact to meld into artistic genius. The Decemberists made sea shanties popular with the twenty-something crowd, brought back the limerick and the cautionary folk song, and stirred them all together with some straight indie rock-ness. 2009 saw the release of their opus, The Hazards of Love – a rock opera beast the likes of which haven’t been seen in quite some time. With their new album The King is Dead on the verge of release, fans and critics alike are wondering, what delightful but unknown style will drive it? 

Here’s the surprise: it’s not an unknown style. But it is delightful.

The King is Dead is forty minutes of pure folksy rock goodness. Each song is simple yet beautifully put together and, oddly enough, much stripped of Colin Meloy’s precocious storytelling. Whether this album was borne out of Capitol’s desire for something a little more middle-of-the-road or the band’s need for something a little less labor intensive than the previous album (seriously, it’s an hour of music that winds in, out and around itself in a very complicated manner) is hard to say, but this isn’t just a change of pace; it feels like an artistic turn of 180 degrees; this album is the anti-Hazards of Love. It feels a bit like they hung around the Avett Brothers for a few months then decided, ‘lets cut an album!’  

And it’s good, boys and girls. If you’ve been waiting to spend your Christmas money, spend it on this.  

The track leaked online thus far and played on the guest spots of television shows like Saturday Night Live is “Down By the Water” and, in addition to being the first single from the record, it's a good bellwether for the rest of the album. While the crashing drums and arching harmonica might make listeners think they’re in for some classic Decemberists storytelling, that idea is soon derailed by Meloy’s smooth, steady vocals that don't depict some very Victorian family issues or dark fairy tales so much as relaying a poignant tale straight out of Americana; a song of a river’s swells and the metaphorical implications of it.  

But Meloy, y’know, words it simpler than that. But he does use the word “anon,” so, for you Decemberists purists, there’s a little gristle for chewing, but it’s certainly not the meat of the album. The real beef in The King is Dead is more of that folk-meets-Americana style (reinforced with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck appearing on at least three tracks), with touches of rock tossed in for good measure. Cuts like “Calamity Song” are upbeat, quick ditties relying on rapid jangly acoustic riffs and Meloy’s nearly enthusiastic singing working over a rather dark subject matter (California falling into the Pacific, anyone?). Further down the list, “All Arise” delves into (gasp!) western themes with an honest-to-God fiddle kicking things off. Fans reading this need not worry, the Decemberists probably won’t be making a run for the Grand Ol’ Opry anytime soon. The tracks that flirt with the line of western styles do just that ― flirt, without getting dangerously close. That indeed may be the best way to look at The King is Dead: as the Decemberists' flirtation with more mainstream folk/Americana styles. Maybe they’ve always eyed it from across the lunchroom, maybe they’ve always meant to go up and talk to it but, now on this album, they’ve asked it to dance. It probably won’t blossom into a love affair but it’s fun for now, footloose, and a little outside the band's general element in the very best way possible.

Artist:

www.decemberists.com/

www.myspace.com/thedecemberists
www.twitter.com/THEDECEMBERISTS

Download:

The Decemberists – "Down By The Water" – The King Is Dead


Further Reading:

Ground Control's Decemberists discography review

Album:

The King Is Dead
comes out on January 18, 2010 via Capitol Records. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

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The Decemberists – [Album]

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Monday, 23 March 2009

Gather round kiddos, it’s musical story time, and you know who that means—The Decemberists! With The Hazards of Love, the wily troubadours mix up their sound into a metal rock/rock opera/folksy country mélange while sticking with what they do best: making their music into a audio novel. And this one could be their War and Peace.

So what’s the story? It’s been described as a drama about a young woman named Margaret and her true love William who are being hassled by a forest queen, a lascivious rake and a demonic animal. Y’know, things that generally happen on a first date. And helping tell this tale of woe and romance is a veritable library of musical talent; Robyn Hitchcock, Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond, Jim James from My Morning Jacket, and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond all drop in to voice the different characters of the tale. It’s a thick and winding story, so throw on those headphones and get cracking.

With opening instrumentals of ambient sound and long moody organ notes, you can tell we’re in for more Decemberists classic action. It’s already cinematic and rich, a story without words. Rustic twanging guitars drop in for the long-winded title “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Wont Wrestle the Thistles Undone).” It’s a decidedly country-esque song a little reminiscent of Iron and Wine’s last album, The Shepherd’s Dog. The shift in sound is notable from their past albums. Whereas before, you felt musically placed on some 19th century wharf, The Hazards of Love seems to feel like you’re in a gritty shantytown in the woods. The Decemberists have stepped away from their imagined seashore and headed inland.

And then “The Bower Song” begins, and the second half of the album’s sound comes crashing into the ears. This is where the ‘rock’ of ‘rock opera’ part becomes really apparent. It’s decidedly grungy rock music— it feels like we’ve tripped back to eighties rock metal. Thick guitar riffs are punctuated by Meloy’s high lilting vocals, and heavy guitar solos drag the song further into that metal mentality. Get ready; this is a theme throughout the rest of the album. The Hazards of Love trips between rock ballad vaguely head-banging sounds and softer acoustic workings erring on the side of country-fried. A few songs attempt to blend the styles, such as ‘Wont Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga),” which sports punchy one-two guitars and drumming, pulled up by lilting singsong vocals.

If you feel a little left out in the cold by these first songs, wishing for a return of The Decemberists sound you’ve come to rely on, skip to “Isn’t It a Lovely Night,” which features the grand return of that old squeezebox we’ve heard so much of in previous albums. The female vocals are perfect for this song, with a steel guitar ever so softly in the background. The duet seems a bit jarring, but as the song goes you almost get used to it. It’s a country waltz, a meeting of previous styles (whimsical accordions) with new ones (steel guitars and flannel shirts). “The Wanting Comes in Waves” showcases a bit of their patented sound, with a dainty piano opening compounded by the rest of the band before dropping back into grungy guitars with a very Lynyrd Skynyrd feel.

Then we hit a nice interlude, which should give you sufficient time to Google what the story is supposed to be up to this point. The second half of the album opens with “The Rakes Song,” a dark and quick song, fun to get into with progressive guitar riffs that’ll have you tapping your feet. The lyrics could’ve been translated from any punk song, with the singer expressing the need for freedom and the way this guy gets rid of people (in very nasty ways).

The second half of this album parallels much of the opening half; “The Abduction of Margaret” pairs with the aforeheard “The Bower Scene”; “The Hazards of Love” all share similar intros with dancing piano solos mixed in with drums and progressive guitaring. Then there are songs like “Margaret in Captivity,” with an intro that sounds suspiciously like Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Twittering guitars plink up and down the scales before things get deep and heavy, accompanied by high arching vocals of the female love interest.

But what happens to Margaret and her true love William, you may be asking. How do they fare against kidnappings, evil queens and demonic animal things? Sorry, I won’t give away the ending (although you may feel the need for a Clif’s Notes book for this album by the end). But listening through The Hazards of Love is definitely worth it to find out their fate. It’s great on two levels—not just sheer musical prowess, but also storytelling in general. You feel like you’re listening to a play. This is rock opera/ ballads at their finest, a style we haven’t seen in quite some time. Jethro Tull would be proud.

Artist:
www.decemberists.com
myspace.com/thedecemberists

Download:
The Decemberists – “The Rake's Song” – [mp3]

Album:
The Decebmerists – The Hazards of Love is out March 24, 2009. Buy it on Amazon.

 

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