Monday, March 28, 2011

The Decemberists: "The King Is Dead" - Album Review

When we last heard from The Decemberists, it was 2009 and they had just dropped their ridiculously epic concept-album folk-rock-opera The Hazards of Love. A lot of people had already labelled them as "sell-outs" for having signed to Capitol Records, thus losing their "indie" cred and blah blah blah... In any case, The Hazards of Love was and is amazing for what it is, although that is not what a lot of people expected from The Decemberists, as I discovered after falling in love with their indie debut album, Castaways and Cutouts. In any case, fast forward to December 2010 and we start hearing new stuff from these guys. Reportedly recorded in a barn on a farm somewhere in the middle of Nowhere, USA, the first sounds were a lot more pure folk-rock than the epic stuff from The Hazards of Love; much closer, indeed, to their first albums. But we could also notice some sleek production and different sounds - could it be, a little touch of country?

Well, when the album finally arrived in mid-January, most of my preconceptions were confirmed, but I also discovered a lot, and I really do mean a lot, of stuff I didn't expect. So let's work through it, shall we?

The King Is Dead opens with a quite country-infused folk-rock ballad called "Don't Carry It All". In it, we find some signature Decemberists sounds, but twisted in a new way. Indeed, this opening track appropriately blends most of the atmospheres we'll be hearing in various degrees through the rest of the album. However, this is also a very good song by itself.

Next we come across "Calamity Song", which is actually a really cool energized folk-rocker of a track. From the opening acoustic riff to the layered electrics, it's a great, almost epic work from a band who we know can make some very intense stuff (remember "The Infanta"?). This is more purely folk-rock than "Don't Carry It All", a lot more in the vein of their early albums. Which I really appreciated, and as I'm sure a lot of fans will. I'm just glad the entire album isn't a "let's go back to our roots" type thing.

The next track, "Rise to Me", is very much a melancholic folk ballad in the style that we've come to expect from these guys. However, and a big however, they've managed to mix in some really awesome new sounds, like that haunting slide guitar that just seems to chill in the background most of the song. Still, we get that same emotion from Colin Meloy, and the mix between old feeling and new sounds is a joy to listen to.

"Rox in the Box", the following track, is one of the songs on The King Is Dead which changes rather completely from The Decemberists' old material. Although the same instruments are there - acoustic guitar, accordeon, and perhaps a mandolin - the song is very different. The first noted change is the addition of a fiddle (calling it a violin would feel out of context here, as I'll explain). Secondly, the country-styled backing vocals were a surprise, and finally, the completely country/East Coast hybrid main riff is what really got me. It breaks fully into it at one point, the accordeon and fiddle transporting you to Nova Scotia for a few awesome moments. This is probably my favourite track on the album, just because of the combination of all these styles and sounds, without ever being overwhelmingly caught in one of them, is pure genius.

Anyways, we move on (too quickly) to "January Hymn", which is another beautiful melancholic ballad whose melodies envelop you like a little cocoon and don't let you go until the very ending, echoey back vocals. Not much to say other than enjoy, because this is a simple, beautiful piece of music.

Those echoey vocals fade away and in comes the pulsing energy of the lead single, "Down by the Water". This is a fine folk-rock power track, destined to be a single; but that in no way means it's a lesser piece of music. The Decemberists have created here one of their classic power ballads but in a new sort of way. Call it more country-like if you want, but that would be limited only to the instrumentation because on top it is still Colin Meloy's awesome voice carrying everything swiftly and awesomely onwards.

The next track, "All Arise!", is the most country of the whole album, and you can tell right from the first fiddle riff. It's probably my least favourite of the album but it's still quite a good song. Just feels like they're trying a bit too hard at that style. A shame, yet still very much enjoyable.

The following piece feels like a complimentary song to "January Hymn". Indeed, it's titled "June Hymn", and it's also a slow, melancholic ballad. Again, beautiful, enjoy and let yourself drift in the melodies and harmonies (which are truly amazing).

Next we get what is probably the "hardest" or "heaviest" track on the album, because it's the only one that starts right with slightly distorted guitars. It's got a really cool riff, some good energy, and it's really driving. Oh yeah, it's called "This Is Why We Fight", which might help explain the high paced, energetic atmosphere created. I really like it, and, being the penultimate track, it's really the climax of the album.

Which bring us to the final track of The King Is Dead. As we know by now, The Decemberists like to finish off with a little unwinding; some denouement to their albums. Usually it's a pretty long track (like "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade" from Castaways and Cutouts), and in this case it's an almost five minute slow ballad called "Dear Avery" that leaves us in a very Decemberists melancholic mood at the end of everything. But it leaves us satisfied, knowing we just heard another solid work from the kings of modern folk-rock. And no, these kings are definitely not dead.

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