Monday, January 24, 2011

Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab

The King is Dead
by The Decemberists

If you read reviews of the new album by The Decemberists, The King is Dead, you'll see two recurring ideas about it: "country-tinged" and "R.E.M.-inspired." Well, let's tackle these ideas.

(Actually, first let's talk about the title: The King is Dead obviously calls to mind the classic Smiths album The Queen is Dead. Beyond the title, I'm not sure about the connection, but Colin Meloy has made no secret of how much he has been influenced by The Smiths. So I don't know the reasons behind the title.)

Okay: country-tinged. It's pretty hard to side-step this nugget of truth. Songs at various points feature slide guitars, fiddles, banjos, and Gillian Welch, queen of Americana bluegrass. So we're not talking about Toby Keith or Taylor Swift country--this is good old American music, with guitar twangs speckled with love of family, harmonica wails dotted with liberty, and honkey tonk piano melodies jeweled with struggle. Country-tinged indeed.

Next: R.E.M.-inspired. A few months ago I saw an interview with Colin Meloy in which he talked about rediscovering early R.E.M. and being moved by it. And he has said that as he was writing the new songs, some of the music lines sounded like they could be R.E.M. ripoffs, so to avoid such accusations he asked Peter Buck (R.E.M.'s guitar master, obviously) to play on several songs. This way the ripoffs become homages. Well played, Colin. Of course I was thrilled to hear such news since R.E.M. is my all-time favorite and Buck's early guitar parts are the stuff of American music lore. More details in a bit, but yes, R.E.M.-inspired.

Overall, The King is Dead is another bit of brilliance from this incredible band. While I loved the rock opera of their last album, I am actually very happy that the new album is more singles-based. The songs on The King is Dead form tight little packages, each one showcasing Meloy's excellent songwriting and the band's virtuosity. These songs seem more personal, less fairytale-like than previous Decemberists songs, without being simple. This is not to say that Colin Meloy doesn't take us on occasional lyrical journeys through literariness and whimsy--he does.

The album starts off in a much more thumping way than their other albums, with the pounding drums (slightly reminiscent of R.E.M.'s "The Finest Worksong") and wailing harmonica of "Don't Carry it All" -- and what an excellent way to start us off. With beautiful harmonies and tales of neighbor helping neighbor, "Don't Carry it All" has quickly become one of my favorite Decemberists songs.

Which leads us to "Calamity Song," the best song on the album, and the song Colin must have been thinking of when he asked Peter Buck to play guitar. The opening guitar is all at once "Gardening at Night," "Talk About the Passion," "Sitting Still." And it's also The Decemberists. This song is wondrous, both in its imitation and its originality.

"Rise to Me" is one of those country-sounding numbers I mentioned, with a lovely slide guitar, strumming acoustic guitar, and lilting melodies. But what a sublimely sweet and powerful song. A call from Colin to the people and things he loves (including his young son) to fight for themselves and not back down.

The most "Decemberists-like" song (for fair-weather fans) arrives in the form of "Rox in the Box," a jaunty, accordian-infused song telling the tale of . . . well, I have not quite figured that out yet. But the violins are exquisite.

The first beautiful ballad on the album, "January Hymn," starts with a rather haunting melody of "oooh oooh oooh" and perhaps the most personal lyrics of the album. Colin sings, "What were the words I meant to say before you left? When I could see your breath lead where you were going to" over a simple guitar part, drawing us in to a tale of loss. Plus he uses "green" as a verb.

The album's first single, "Down By the Water," again features Peter Buck on guitar and Gillian Welch on backing vocals, and the result is perhaps the most "radio-friendly "song The Decemberists have ever made. Everything about this song is excellent (and the dark music is highly inspired by "The One I Love" by R.E.M.)

Country comes surging back with the opening fiddle of "All Arise!" which also feature a honkey tonk piano. When I listen to this fun ditty, I feel like I'm at a meeting of the Appalachian Dead Poets' Society, where we also beat our wet laundry on rocks. (I don't know what this means either--just go with it.)

Obviously a companion piece to "January Hymn," "June Hymn" is quite simply a phenomenally pretty song. "A barony of ivy in the trees, expanding out it's empire by degrees . . ." Gorgeous.

The pace changes quickly with "This is Why We Fight," and the strumming guitar drives the upbeat tempo to a soaring chorus. The layered percussions, the in-the-background harmonica, the tinkling guitar -- this is jangle pop, darkly and handsomely redone. A true album highlight.

After a muffled bluegrass interlude, the album's somber closer "Dear Avery," arrives to send us off in a sad, melodic way. The music sounds a bit like the final song ("The Drowned") from The Hazards of Love, and also seems to tell a story of loss. "There are times life will rattle your bones and will bend your limbs."

Some Decemberists fans need "The Mariner's Revenge Song" all the time. This album may not be for them. But for the rest of us, those who want masterful musicianship and perfectly crafted indie-Americana, The King is Dead delivers a superb 40 minutes of joy.


At 12:29 AM, Blogger undulatingorb posited...

Hooray!! I'm trying not to explode before next week!!!!

At 1:03 PM, Blogger matt posited...

I simply cannot get enough of this album.

At 8:41 AM, Blogger Bryce Fields posited...

Rox in a Box is about the Gray Granite Mountain Mine disaster of 1917 (,_Montana#Granite_Mountain.2FSpeculator_Mine_Disaster)


Post a Comment

<< Home