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EP Review: The Decemberists – Long Live the King [Capitol]

Most discussions of The Decemberists contain similar themes, and that’s probably in large part because the band has cultivated such themes for themselves and one can’t help but be drawn into that whole storyline. The most basic way to put it is that their songs are often tales of olden times, when chimney sweeps and barrow boys were in existence, and people were scared of succumbing to consumption. Though early American in time period, the verbiage put forth by singer Colin Meloy pretty much required an Ivy League education or at least a dictionary to fully understand. And as engaging as their early records were, jaunty little melodies that told such stories in such florid ways, as time went on they became increasingly complex and alienating, the coup de grace being 2009’s rock opera “The Hazards of Love”. There was good news on the horizon though, and it finally arrived earlier this year with the band’s sixth full length “The King Is Dead”. Gone were the heady concepts and a fair amount of the ten dollar words. In their place was a much more humble and dare I say plainspoken alt-country sound, with guest appearances by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Americana legend Gillian Welch. Such a rootsy record was a change of pace for the band, and it pretty much saved them from the sharp downward slope their careers had taken. It may not have been on par with their best stuff, but it seemed to be a gentle nod to fans that they had heard their cries of disappointment and wanted to do right by them. As The Decemberists ready themselves for an extended break to pursue other things both musical and non-musical, they’re leaving us with one last taste of country via the “Long Live the King” EP. Culled from the same sessions that yielded “The King Is Dead”, this six song collection is pretty much all outtakes, and that alone should tell you a little something about their quality.

That’s not to say all records that promote b-sides, outtakes and rarities are bad, after all sometimes artists need to leave certain tracks off because they merely don’t fit sonically or thematically with the rest of an album. Then there are the bands whose leftovers are still better than most other bands’ best material. In the case of the “Long Live the King” EP, if your expectations are low going in, then they’ll easily be met. To be cut from a pretty good but not quite great record should already inform you of how well these songs are going to go, piecemeal bits that don’t fully make sense together but nevertheless remain interesting curios for the band’s devoted fan base. The set begins with “E. Watson”, a song about a murder that pairs Meloy’s vocals with only an acoustic guitar. Considering the absence of the rest of the band, it’s easy to think of Meloy’s covers EPs, in which he performed songs by Morrissey, Shirley Collins and Sam Cooke entirely on his own. It’s a somber way to start things, and a good indicator as to why the song might not have fit in with the cheerier demeanor on “The King Is Dead”. Much more in line with that last record is “Foregone”, a track that has the alt-country twang and strong lyrics to make it a solid deep cut rather than an outtake. For whatever reason though, it was cut, and we’re all the better for getting the chance to hear it now. Contrasting with that is “Burying Davy”, a dark, prog-rock trip that certainly feels like the band was still in “The Hazards of Love” mode when it was recorded. If there’s one track that feels most out of place and unworthy of inclusion on any Decemberists release, it’s that one.

The second half of the “Long Live the King” EP takes a turn for the interesting, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The track “I4U & U4ME” is labeled as the “home demo” version, though honestly if you’ve been listening to a lot of bedroom-recorded demos from unknown artists, this sounds pristine by comparison. The quality isn’t even that different from the professional studio recordings on the rest of the EP. And while the full band is present on the track, there is the sense that it could use just a touch of fleshing out into a more full bodied and impressive cut should they so desire. It’s a whole lot of bouncy fun too, which is not something you can say about a lot of Decemberists songs. Also fun but in an entirely different way is the band’s take on the Grateful Dead’s “Row Jimmy”, a nearly 7 minute excursion that originally appeared as a b-side on the “January Hymn” single late last year. The loose interpretation of the original benefits it greatly and results in one of the more memorable versions of such an oft-covered cut. Last but certainly not least comes “Sonnet”, a rather lighthearted acoustic number whose lyrics are culled from the annals of Dante himself. Yes, the “Dante’s Inferno” guy or the “Divine Comedy” guy, however you want to remember him. It’s a fine way to end the EP, but clearly wouldn’t be an optimal choice for inclusion on any real Decemberists record, unless they crafted one entirely based on the works of classical literature.

It will likely be awhile before we hear from The Decemberists again. That is to say, give them a few years to do their own things before they return to this band. They could use the break and we could use the break. The “Long Live the King” EP comes across as more of a stopgap effort, something to tide fans over or at least wave a temporary goodbye with a few crumbs and morsels left sitting out with no home elsewhere. Outside of maybe “Burying Davy”, there’s nothing here that’s outright bad, though there’s also nothing that outright sparkles either. Just a few more solid songs from a band that could use more of them in their catalogue. Let’s just hope they remember that down the road when it comes time to return to the stage they were meant for.

The Decemberists – Row Jimmy (Grateful Dead cover)

Buy the “Long Live the King” EP from Amazon

Free MP3: Joanna Newsom – Gossip (Starlight Girls cover)

It is, instead, a rather brilliant April Fools Day prank. Unfortunately, not one perpetrated by me. Allow me to take a half moment to explain. An email shows up in my inbox, with the sender being a very reputable PR person I’ve worked with before and who also coincidentally works with Joanna Newsom. There was nothing in the email to suggest anything was fishy, and technically speaking it made it to my inbox after midnight on April 2nd anyways. If you listen to the mp3, it too sounds pretty legit, though the vocals are just a tad too cutesy, even for Joanna Newsom. It sounds like a professionally recorded harp version of the song, which I assume it is by someone other than Joanna Newsom. Are Starlight Girls behind this, hoping to generate some press? Wouldn’t surprise me if they were  (see statement from Starlight Girls below). Keep in mind it could also be somebody else, I’ve not yet identified the culprit (and probably never will unless the culprit openly admits to it). There you have it, after playing a
poorly received April Fools Day prank of my own and thinking I got away scot free, turns out I got hit on April 2. I have removed the impostor mp3 along with everything else in this post to avoid confusion with the real thing. You may still be able to find it online (at least streaming) if you do some searching.

This is regarding the supposed cover of our song “Gossip” by the folk musician Joanna Newsom. While we are flattered that anyone would put so much effort into covering our song, we assure you that we were not involved and had no foreknowledge of its creation and we would like to clear the air to avoid additional headache and heartache as a result of the dissemination of this video onto the internet.

To clear up any “conspiracy theories” regarding why our music video seems to have “premiered” at the same time we want it to be known that the director uploaded this video publicly without our consent and our lawyer is currently inquiring as to why. The music video for Gossip is neither finished or approved for release and it contains an earlier demo of the song than the one currently available on our FaceBook, which is also a demo. The final version of the video was not planned for release until next month, when our EP gets mastered and the final version of the song is finished.

Any e-mail you receive about this did not come from us, nor was it approved by us. The jokes on us as much as it was on you.

Starlight Girls

EP Review: Amanda Palmer – Amanda Palmer Plays the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele [Self-Released]

Amanda Palmer is great. First as part of The Dresden Dolls, later as a solo artist, and currently as one half of the duo Evelyn Evelyn, she’s a true original who embraces both showmanship and the do-it-yourself ethos. Now that she’s free from the constraints of her contract with Roadrunner Records after a hard-fought battle to be released, Palmer has taken on the burden of being a true solo artist by foregoing a record label and releasing all her music independently from here on out. Fan support is crucial for this venture, which is why she offers plenty of purchasing options for whatever projects she does. This week, she released an EP’s worth of Radiohead covers, as performed on her ukulele with the occasional piano or violin part to flesh out the arrangements.

Covering Radiohead is basically the most impossible of impossible tasks. It’s not something to be undertaken lightly, though perhaps that might be the smartest move considering there’s no way you’ll ever top the original versions of the songs. Complete reinterpretations also hold some weight, as renowned classical pianist Christopher O’Riley released two albums of Radiohead songs dressed up with the instrumental flourishes of a grand piano. There was also the “Rockabye Baby” Radiohead album, which used glockenspiels to turn the band’s songs into lullabies. What Amanda Palmer does is deliver mostly straight interpretations of some of Radiohead’s most iconic tracks, though the ukulele really brings a more “acoustic-lite” feeling to the whole thing. On the EP’s opening “Fake Plastic Trees”, Palmer mostly uses the ukulele to keep some sense of rhythm in the song, because there are barely any chord changes. Instead, the melody carries via her voice. Though she can clearly handle the vocals (though does any voice REALLY compare with Thom Yorke’s?), on the whole the track comes off a bit thin. Of course when you’ve only got a uke, thin is about the best you can do. “High and Dry” fares a little better, as it lends itself to the ukulele, but it’s the very small splashes of piano that additionall help the melody where it most desperately needs it. Still not great, but satisfactory. Continuing with the upward mobility, “No Surprises” wisely adds not only piano, but just a hint of toy piano along with some overdubbed harmonies. Given the original’s relative simplicity, it’s not too difficult to replicate. Both “Idioteque” and the two versions of “Creep” function as expected, though none of them really grab you like they should. What does work in the most effective way imaginable, is Palmer’s version of “Exit Music (From A Film)”. There is no ukulele this time, it’s instead supplanted by the piano. Compared to the plain acoustic and atmospherics of the Radiohead version, it feels as emotionally bare and paranoid as the original. Some bits of cello and violin also add to the dramatic flair, and it practically makes the entire EP worthwhile on its own.

What does make the entire EP worthwhile is the high, high cost of 84 cents for all 7 songs. All those songs for cheaper than a single iTunes track, and you get a choice of 320k mp3, lossless, or a handful of other formats. Yes, there’s also the option to pay any amount higher than 84 cents should you feel it to be worth that. And while most of the other possible packages for purchase are already sold out, there’s a T-shirt and digital version of the EP combo for $20 still available, along with the most expensive $1,000 version which gets you a 32GB iPhone, a DVD, a vinyl and digital version of the EP, a shirt and various other trinkets, plus a personal phone call from Amanda who will play a cover song for you and sing a Haiku of your choosing as well. Yes, there are some choices. Unless you’re a hardcore Amanda Palmer fan who is willing to support every little thing she does, chances are just the digital version of the EP will suffice. For 84 cents, this is worth a purchase if you like Palmer, Radiohead or both of them even a little bit. Hell, maybe even throw 5-10 bucks her way and help pay her bills for another month. This isn’t going to change your life, nor will it probably compel you to listen to it repeatedly, but it is a novelty worth having on hand for the occasional times you want to hear a halfway decent Radiohead cover. Or just Amanda Palmer singing songs you’re more readily familiar with, if you’re not her biggest fan.

Stream the songs and purchase the EP via Amanda Palmer’s official site

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