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The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

17 Jan

On January 18th, The Decemberists release their new album, The King Is Dead, and I’ve been listening to an advance copy for the last week or so. For the record: I’m not the biggest The Decemberists fan. I wasn’t fully engaged with them until about ’05 and ’06 for Picaresque and The Crane Wife, respectively. And, I didn’t even bother to pick up The Hazards of Love or attend Rock the Garden to see them in ’09. It’s not that I don’t like them; it’s just that for everything I liked about them, there was always something I didn’t. Two main issues: 1) I never felt smart enough – even today I probably can’t comment intelligently on the references in their music; and 2) I felt like they sometimes took too much investment in time and effort to fully appreciate. But, at the end of the day, I still viewed these reservations as weaknesses of mine, not of theirs.

But, then a funny thing happened this Fall, I happened to catch Black Prairie at the 400 Bar.  Black Prairie is three members of The Decemberists (Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, and Nate Query) along with Annalisa Tornfelt and Jon Neufeld.  The music from their debut is largely instrumental, but that did nothing to limit my enjoyment of the show.  It was one of the more memorable shows I saw last year, even though I commented on it quite simply; “…like being in The Decemberists’ practice space and a few of them got there early, and are just jamming – waiting for the others to arrive”.  And, that’s the beauty of Black Prairie.

So, I was looking forward to The Decemberists release this time around.  Even more so after seeing their performance of the first single off the album, “Down By The Water” on Conan.  (You can see the video here)  The first thing you’ll notice from the video is the involvement of Gillian Welch.  Well, she also plays a large role on the album, the largest role is “Down By The Water”, but her presence is felt on more than a handful of the other songs as well.  I don’t know if they’ve ever teamed up with her in the past, but she’s a perfect addition.  If she’s touring with the band for this release (I certainly hope so), I’d love to see her sing backup/duet on their older material.

Another notable contributor to The King Is Dead is Peter Buck of R.E.M. He contributes to a few songs on the album, but none more evident than on “Calamity Song”.  It’s a blatant rip-off of his guitar work on R.E.M.’s “Talk About The Passion”, or at least a Red-Bull-influenced-sped-up-rip-off of his own riffs.  To be fair though, it’s a great song.  I’ve come to think of it more as a parallel universe version with “Talk About The Passion” song elements, “Shiny Happy People” feel and “Cuyahoga” lyrics.  Peter, like Gillian, has left a significant mark on this album.

So, what do we have on the whole?  We have a great album.  And it’s a great album based solely on its collection of songs.  The grand themes are both not needed and not missed.  I was amazed at how quickly I was familiar with each song, and in turn with the album.  You’ll be singing along with many songs by the end of your first listen.  And, within four or five listens you’ll feel like this album has been in your collection for years; it’s that immediately likeable… and that good.

Song comments…?  “Don’t Carry It All” is the perfect opening song, “Calamity Song” is the best of R.E.M. and The Decemberists rolled into one, and “Rise To Me” is beautiful.  I was also immediately struck by “January Hymn”, maybe not surprising given the date and the current weather here in Minnesota, but still – a song that perfectly paints its title, as does its companion song, “June Hymn”.  “Down By the Water” was released first, and might be destined to be the most popular song, but nothing here disappoints.

The best part of each song, and ultimately of the album, is that it leaves you wanting more.

The Decemberists will be at the State Theatre on February 6, 2011 with Mountain Man.

Track Listing:
“Don’t Carry It All”
“Calamity Song”
“Rise To Me”
“Rox In The Box”
“January Hymn”
“Down By The River”
“All Arise!”
“June Hymn”
“This Is Why We Fight”
“Dear Avery”

Colin Meloy Plays New Songs at Make It Pop! (#1 of 2) from on Vimeo.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention The Decemberists – The King Is Dead | Cake In 15 -- - January 17, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Staciaann. Staciaann said: RT @CakeIn15: Read @Jeff_mcl 's review of the new Decemberists album, which comes out tomorrow! […]

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