As an important note at the outset, the previous release of this week's selected artists was the initial genesis for this blog, as numerous acquaintances asked for reviews of The Decemberists' thematic concept record, The Hazards of Love, that a more standing forum became necessary. Almost two years later, the Portland-based folk-rock intelligentsia return with their most distinct offering yet, the alt-country/heartland-flavored The King Is Dead – set to be released January 18.
The intent of the ten-track album is unambiguous: a cohesive product that is consistent in tone and style from start to finish, and one that incorporates more elements of Americana than European folklore – the latter influence the most prevalent on their previous outing. And to execute their roots-rock sound, the quintet host the sort of guest performers one would expect from such an effort, namely R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and accomplished folk-rock vocalist Gillian Welch, both who make recurring and enhancing contributions to the work. Buck's trademark jangly Rickenbacker notes brighten the otherwise stripped-down compositions, while Welch provides a needed counterpoint to frontman Colin Meloy's vocals. Meloy often sounds best when accompanied by female vocal talent – who help even-out his nasal lisp – as evidenced by the strong contributions of former drummer Rachel Blumberg on much of the band's early work, touring musicians Petra Haden and Lisa Molinaro later on and guest performers Laura Veirs on The Crane Wife ballad "Yankee Bayonet," and Shara Worden as well as Becky Stark on Hazards.
The presence of both Buck and Welch is notable on the collection's first single, the mid-set number "Down By the Water." Buck tacks the song's 3:42 towards his legendary band's own Fables of the Reconstruction, with its rustic imagery and restrained but not moody song structures. The track and the Fables' effort of nearly the same run-time, "Green Grow the Rushes," find not much space between their foundations. At the same time, Welch's voice supports Meloy's rusty wail, enlivening phrases such as "I would bear it all broken" and "the pretty little patter of a seaboard town" that might have sounded more bleak otherwise.
Other heartland rock sensibilities emerge throughout the affair, initiated by the opener "Don't Carry It All's" Tom Petty flair, much in keeping with his mid-90's hit, "You Don't Know How It Feels." Meloy notes the record's change in direction at its commencement, intoning, "here we come to a turning of the season; witness to the arc toward the sun." It's hard-charging and full-bodied, and aptly sets the stage for the balance of the proceedings. And despite the concerted departure here from the groups's previous work, The King Is Dead is awash in the same hyper-literacy – largely driven by Meloy – that floods the band's entire catalogue, with nods to "trillium," "Andalusian tribes," "culverts" and "a panoply of song." No other contemporary performers unleash such an extensive vocabulary, and could rightly be accused of being a bit smarty, smarty.
And much like prior Decemberists projects, charter members Jenny Conlee (organ, keyboards, accordion, etc.) and Chris Funk (guitars, banjo, etc.) offer essential flavor to Meloy's melodies and the solid rhythm work of bassist Nate Query and drummer John Moen – although the latter segment is more subdued in their roles here than on the most recent recordings, as both Query and Moen had more substantial duties in The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love. For instance, Funk's slide guitar parts hearten the listless "Rise To Me" while his electric guitar talents on "This Is Why We Fight" drive the album's heaviest entry. Likewise, Conlee's saloon parlor piano stiffens "All Arise!" with its backbone and her Hammond organ swirls in the auspices of the record's most upbeat composition, "Calamity Song."
The pair of hymns devoted to months at opposing poles of the calendar – January and June – are understandably divergent in their tenor: the former is stark and unadorned while its counterpart is robust and vibrant, each according to their season. But Meloy infuses both with a common sensuousness – in the literal sense of the word – with descriptions of frosty breath juxtaposed with emerging bulbs; yellow bonnets contrasting with snow-swept grounds. The time spent by Meloy in creating both pieces as functional in their own right while mindful of their relevancy to each other is evident as each unfolds.
Still, it would be an error to slot The King Is Dead at the top of the five-piece's best material. The desire of Meloy and his mates to create a more homogeneous collection is admirable and, indeed, successful – there can be no mistake the tracks collected here belong together. And any loyal Decemberists follower would certainly expect the effort as the result of the band's objective to make an alt-country statement. However, plenty of groups can tailor fine alt-country/Americana records. Far fewer can produce the sort of uber-intelligent, narrative constructions that have won the outfit so many admirers over its decade-plus period of output. Hardly any of their peers could match the majesty of "The Infanta," the playful debauchery of "Billy Liar" or the horrifying humor of "The Rake's Song," among scores of others. The magic instilled in their previous offerings – all the way from 2002's Castaways and Cutouts through The Hazards of Love – is largely absent here. And while the Celtic-flavored "Rox in the Box" here comes closest to the clever cache Meloy has assembled to date, it does not substitute for the full-fledged musical based on a late-1800's Montana mining strike the frontman has alluded to for many years now. Mr. Meloy, we're waiting...
Come for: "Down By the Water"
Stay for: "Calamity Song"
You'll be surprised by: "January/June Hymn"