New Release: What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World
Release Date: Today (1/20/15)
Record Label: Capitol Records
Location: Portland, Ore.
Sounds Like: Okkvervil River (NMT, NMT); The Family Crest (NMT, NMT); The Head & The Heart (NMT)
Based on the selected tracks that the infamously clever Portlandians disbursed to its nerdy/hipster fandom prior to the release of their seventh full-length release, I was prepared to rephrase what I'd said about their prior record, 2011's The King Is Dead (NMT): that it's a perfectly fine alt-country record, but plenty of acts can spin out quality alt-country material. Few have the zany ability to meld ancient folk, prog rock and nerd pop through an arsenal of unusual instruments and Colin Meloy's ongoing thesaurus-check lyrics.
Fortunately, the band's streaming of the 14-track collection a week prior to its release erased nearly all my anxieties that the group's baroque pop genesis had been replaced with an exclusively alt-country repertoire. And, to be sure, there is plenty of evidence the Americana themes – that they indeed executed with aplomb on The King Is Dead – will continue to be a lasting imprint on the band's new material going forward, in cuts such as the leadoff single "Make You Better," "Lake Song" and "Carolina Low." But just as encouraging is the fistful of tracks that hark back to what fans might consider as the classic Decemberists sound, ranging from the early offerings "Calvary Captain" and "Philomena" to the delightfully odd "Better Not Wake The Baby" and the album's knockout track, "Mistral." So, to all the loyalists, have no fear: The Decemberists have not forsaken you.
Come for: "Make You Better" (straightforward alt rock, perhaps with a bit more oomph than your average Decemberists offering; Jenny Conlee's unadorned piano part gives the tune its warmth)
Stay for: "Cavalry Captain" (welcome back to the exuberant, majestic sound that this group can deliver like few others; instrumentally reminiscent of "We Both Go Down Together")
You'll be surprised by: "Mistral" (one of the band's best individual tracks in some time; most of the Decemberists faithful have watched the video of Colin Meloy joining Mavis Staples for "The Weight" at the Newport Folk Festival. This is that, except an original song; Jenny Conlee's honky-tonk piano is marvelous)
Solid efforts: "The Singer Addresses His Audience" (a companion to "I Was Meant For The Stage" from 2003's Her Majesty, The Decemberists; seems better suited as an album closing number, but perhaps here it's functioning as a prelude; some clever Meloy lines, including, "we're aware that you cut your hair in the style that our drummer wore in that video" and "So when your bridal processional is a televised confessional to the benefits of Axe shampoo"); "Philomena" (hints of 60s doo-wop; ahh, there's the crafty hooks we've come to expect from Meloy; this could be the backstory of the rake character from The Hazards of Love: "I'll I've ever wanted in the world was too see a naked girl"); "Lake Song" (hearty; "And you, all sibylline, reclining in your pew" and "Now we arise to curse those young suburban villains and their ill-begotten children from the lawn"...fantastic writing, as usual); "Til the Water's All Gone" (Chris Funk's twangy western guitar is a new twist for the band); "The Wrong Year" (the narrative first line – "Gray Jane was a riverchild, born down by the river wild" – automatically demands your attention; this number really is a nice bridge between the two eras of Meloy's songwriting); "Carolina Low" (kinda Colin Meloy sings for you; like "Philomena," I imagine this as backstory of the soldier in "Yankee Bayonet" "I'm bound for the hilltop, gonna make it bleed"); "Better Not Wake the Baby" (more integration of the celtic motifs heard on "Rox in the Box" from The King Is Dead;" you could easily be convinced this is some old folk tune; at 1:44, it's the perfect amount of time, a strategy that They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT) have been perfecting for decades: a good idea doesn't need to be any more than that); "Anti-Summersong" (the selection that could have most easily fit on The King Is Dead, country to its core; the echoing bass background vocals in the chorus might be the most humorous thing on the record); "Easy Come, Easy Go" (this is one of those chronicles-of-the sailor-on-shore-leave chanties, but it sounds nothing like any sea chanty you've ever heard. If you know Great Big Sea's (NMT) "Jack Hinks," this is its thematic counterpoint; again, good use of the short 2:11 runtime to deliver a fun idea, but nothing more than that); "12/17/12" (another ostensibly Colin Meloy solo number – that also delivers the album's title – but some unobstructive percussion from John Moen and female backing vocals I guess make it a band song; still, no need to pass it by); "A Beginning Song" (oh, yes, very clever placing a song with this title as the closing number; it's far more uptempo than your standard concluding selection, especially with Nate Query's fuzz bass a-la Ben Folds Five's (NMT) Robert Sledge)