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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

Album Review: The Decemberists – The King Is Dead [Capitol]

One has to wonder – did somebody tell The Decemberists that they’d gone off the deep end, or was it a conclusion they reached themselves? Their last album was 2008’s “The Hazards of Love”, and it was a long-form rock opera filled to the brim with shape-shifting characters and a plotline so confusing that frontman Colin Meloy seemed to have a tough time explaining it. Even the record before that, “The Crane Wife”, was largely a storytelling affair taken from an old Japanese folk tale surrounding a crane that turns into a woman. If, upon reading this, it all sounds quite preposterous, that’s because it is. That, and epically pretentious when placed amid Meloy’s florid and ten-dollar-word lyrics. Despite this, the music continued to be decent, if not somewhat excellent, which in turn is probably what saved the band from becoming outcasts by much of their highly loyal fan base. What built that fan base in the first place almost exclusively came from the band’s first three records, which largely consisted of sharply written and concise but instrumentally dense pop songs. There were characters even back then, tales of chimney sweeps, gymnasts, ballerinas, thieves and sailors, but they were all confined to their own songs rather than an entire album. So whether or not there was an intervention or perhaps even some pressure from their record label, The Decemberists are back with a new record, and this time they’re going old school. The band took in a steady diet of R.E.M., moved onto a farm, and brought in legendary singer-songwriter-pinup Gillian Welch for an assist. Oh yeah, and R.E.M.’s own Peter Buck dropped by to provide some additional inspiration as well. The final product is “The King Is Dead”, out next week and showcasing a leaner, cleaner and outright different version of The Decemberists than we’ve seen in quite some time.

The very first thing you hear on “Don’t Carry It All”, the opening track on “The King Is Dead”, is a harmonica. To my knowledge, The Decemberists have never used harmonica before, and it throws you off balance almost immediately. That plus an acoustic guitar and it’s like a quick trip back to Neil Young’s “Harvest” days. The gently sawing fiddles and some vocal harmonies push an alt-country/Americana vibe that much more, but yes, with Peter Buck playing on the song there’s a little bit of R.E.M. sound in there too. Buck’s acoustic guitar work is a whole lot more distinctive on “Calamity Song”, a track that would be perfectly at home on a record like “Fables of the Reconstruction” were you to hand over the vocals to Michael Stipe. To put it another way, The Decemberists sounding like classic R.E.M. is by no means a bad thing. Some piano, more acoustic guitar/harmonica and the country staple slide guitar pop up for the ballad “Rise to Me”, which is eerily reminiscent of late 60s/early 70s material from The Band. By this point, it’s pretty obvious that not only have The Decemberists vastly changed their style from their last two albums, but have also provided a healthy variation on their earliest, more poppy fare. Granted, a nearly solo acoustic ballad such as “January Hymn” comes across like a less wordy version of “Red Right Ankle”, but the distinctly Americana angle at which the band is approaching their new material is surprisingly refreshing. Peter Buck makes one last appearance on first single “Down By the Water”, which bears a sonic resemblance in many respects to R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”, albeit with a lot more harmonica and strong backing vocals courtesy of Gillian Welch. Speaking of Welch though, she does backing vocals on seven of the album’s ten tracks and in turn provides her own interesting twist to everything she touches. Case in point, “All Arise!” definitely sounds more like a Welch song than a Decemberists song as the fiddles, banjos and Old West-style piano sound like they’d be right at home amid a barndance. “This Is Why We Fight” is probably the closest the band comes to sounding like their old selves, in a good way. Chris Funk is back tearing up the electric guitar, and there’s a certain brash, almost anthemic feel to the song; an energized call to arms that was missing up until that point. It only figures then that the album ends on the very next track, “Dear Avery”. Thankfully it continues the long-standing Decemberists tradition of ending strong, in this case with a gorgeous acoustic ballad that holds strong ties to Fleetwood Mac. Just the acoustic guitar and organ would have been good enough to call the track a success, and you could take or leave the slide guitar, but it’s the rich harmonies that go even further beyond just Welch’s voice that bring out the song’s best qualities. It comes across like a fitting coda to a record that seems to hold surprises at each and every turn.

There are some issues with “The King Is Dead”. First and foremost among them is Colin Meloy’s dumbed-down wordplay. It’s annoying when he uses too many words that require a dictionary to understand, but that’s also part of what makes his writing so distinctive. If he can keep the challenging vocabulary to a happy medium level where he doesn’t go overboard with it, more power to him. Meloy still throws out a few magniloquent words when he’s feeling up to it, as “loam” and “conjure” and “culverts”, but ultimately there’s a paucity of them. Saying “On a winter Sunday, I go/to clear away the snow/and green the ground below” is pleasant but seems like anybody could have written it. On the plus side though, that provides more of an opportunity to focus more on how the songs are arranged and also calls to attention Meloy’s vocal performance, which is stronger than ever, perhaps to prove his mettle in face-offs versus Gillian Welch. On the instrumental side, the alt-country/Americana genre has been around for a long time now, and similar to the lyrics it’s tough to make an impact unless your songs are really special. The Decemberists prove they’re up for such a challenge with this record, but just barely miss their ultimate goal. To put it another way, such a valiant effort makes “The King Is Dead” a very, very good album that wants to be great. Still, it’s a huge step back upwards and forwards for the band, both reviving the strength and good will they earned on their pre-“Crane Wife” albums while also trying to expand their sound to new areas. It may not be the best thing they’ve ever done, but it’s close. At this point, close equals highly satisfying. More than anything though, it just feels great to have The Decemberists back on the right track, whatever track that might be.

Stream the entire album at NPR (limited time only)

Preorder “The King Is Dead” from Amazon

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