Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Decemberists – Long Live the King

(I had fully intended to post on schedule the previous two Tuesdays, however, technical difficulties involving my email machine had prevented me from actually listening to the new music slated for review. Now, with fully computing power restored, this is my best attempt to catch up, which explains for coverage of only an EP-length release)

Often, when you hear artists or bands describe a recent studio session, and boast how they had written and worked on boatloads of new material, but most of it never made the final release of 10 or 12 tracks. Now, surely, there were fragments of songs that didn't quite pan out, and others that needed more cultivation, possibly to re-appear on a still later record (next week's profilee, Noel Gallagher, includes a track on is first solo album that he claims was in the works as an oasis tune for more than a decade, but never released). Regardless, it would be nice to have a chance to hear some of that discarded material left on the cutting room floor, especially from bands or artists who routinely turn out top-notch material, but take longer breaks between new releases. This is exactly the sort of desire fulfilled by one of this blog's favorite acts, The Decemberists, with their recently-released EP, Long Live the King; a half-length compendium to the full LP, The King is Dead, which came out early this year and reviewed by us here.

Of course, the flip side to my advocacy for the release of studio hold-backs is that sometimes when they do emerge, it's a load of fluff – shoddy acoustic demos, fly-by-night covers and other uninspired fare. One recalls the b-side material box set of the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness concept album as particularly trivial (although both "Medellia of the Grey Skies" and "Aeroplane Flies High (Turns Left, Looks Right)" were solid cuts). In other words, there's good reason the band chose to leave them off initially. But, fortunately for us, this is not the case with the six tracks of Long Live the King (itself more than half the number of tracks found on the original source material).

The connection between the two records is explicit, from the medieval monarchical phrase that represents the title of both collections to their alt-country overtones. Why chief songwriter and frontman Colin Meloy and his mates declined their inclusion on the full-length album is uncertain, but most could have been slotted among the rest without dampening the quality or context of The King is Dead – in fact, they would have likely only added to it.

Opener "E. Watson" is a somber, acoustic graveyard lament from Meloy, dedicated to the title character. Although The King is Dead certainly featured much of Meloy's trademark quirky intellectualism, what it lacked was the more intricate narratives that defined much of the band's work prior to that album. Here, the nuanced and interesting real-life tale of Edgar Watson – one of Florida's first pioneers – is the sort of output many longtime fans of the group have come to expect. Meloy's lyricism here is at it's finest, as witnessed in the second verse:

Watson had it in from the beginning
He built that house on Chatham Bend
A white-washed knotted pine
Ninety acres furrowed for the cane
And he drove it down from Georgia
His dad a martyred soldier
In the war between the states

Meloy is one of the few contemporary songwriters who possesses the talents to push his listeners' intellectual capacity – along with Okkervil River's Will Shelf – and he should be encouraged to continue. But The King is Dead seemed to be a slim retreat from that mission, and my review of that record noted that shift. In a track like "E. Watson," those fears may be allayed.

Moreover, when paired with "Burying Davy" two tracks later, the numbers could have been pulled from the pages of the morose, but fascinating Spoon River Anthology collection of poems by Edgar Lee Master (another Edgar!), where the accounts of those who passed away in some small hamlet are far more interesting than those who remain. The tracks link back to The King is Dead through the exemplary backing vocals of Laura Veirs (who also previously contributed guest vocals to "Yankee Bayonet" off the Crane Wife record) and Annalisa Tornfelt, who mirror the fine work done by Gillian Welch on the previous effort.

Meloy's macabre stories are balanced by the more meatier, alt-country duo of "Foregone" and the band's cover of The Grateful Dead's "Row Jimmy." The former is easily this record's strongest offering, with it's tangy Gram Parsons vibe and honey-laced steel guitar by guitarist Chris Funk buoying Meloy's pangs of regret, which he dubs "the reach and the wrecks and the wrong." It melds nicely with the Dead cover, which replaces the original's blues sketch with a more robust roots foundation and a more subtle bridge part via pianist and organist Jenny Conlee (who's currently recovering from successful cancer treatment after being largely unable to participate in the band's tour this spring and summer).

The one that doesn't fit here as neatly is "I 4 U & U 4 Me." Just judging by the title, it would, at best, seem to be an odd Prince rarity, or at worst, the latest garbled vomit by whichever boy band is reuniting at the time. Instead, it's delightfully closer to the Violent Femmes or The Pogues (both of which Meloy has noted as influences on the band), with its galloping acoustic parts from Meloy and Funk contrasting with bassist Nate Query's sludgy acoustic bass and drummer John Moen's stiff snare. Even though it's listed as a demo version – and the production sounds just a bit unrefined – that's alright considering the tune's upbeat and unpolished ethos.

Rounding out the collection's half-dozen tracks the understated "Sonnet." Although it begins as a somewhat vanilla Meloy ballad, the addition of the full band and horns just before the number's midpoint enlivens the melody and ends the proceedings on an upturn. Sounds like the perfect place to leave things until next time...

Come for: "E. Watson"
Stay for: "Foregone"
You'll be surprised by: "I 4 U & U 4 Me"

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