Up until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t really much of a fan of Portland’s The Decemberists. It wasn’t that I disliked the indie darlings or had any animosity toward them. I had a handful of their songs on my iPod and I wouldn’t skip them if they came up in shuffle mode. I did, however, find it difficult to muster up any particular affinity for their music. I think I just found them to be a tad too fantastical and melodramatic for my tastes.
Then, about a year ago, some things started happening that caused me to start paying closer attention. First, several core members of the group (Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, and Nate Query) broke off to form the side project Black Prairie. Their debut album, Feast of the Hunter’s Moon, was a string band record at its core, but expanded that concept into some fairly interesting new territories.
When I heard that Decemberists’ front man Colin Meloy was interested in incorporating more of that country and Americana feel into their new record, I vowed to check it out when it was released. Then I was blown away by Gillian Welch singing with the band on Conan O’Brien’s show. I started to read some more and learned that Peter Buck of R.E.M. (my favorite band of all time) was involved in several tracks. By the time I listened to a stream of The King is Dead on NPR’s website a few weeks before the release, I was completely hooked.
Meloy had lived up to his promise. This is an album steeped in Americana.
From the Celtic rhythms of “Rox in the Box,” a song that borrows a melody from the traditional “Raggle Taggle Gypsy” to the fiddle fueled country shuffle of “All Arise!,” there’s plenty here to justify playing this record on Americana radio. Heck, we’ve even added it to rotation at WDVX. I can’t say I ever thought I’d see the day when we were spinning The Decemberists in a heavy rotation.
Of course, Welch lends some credibility to the project by also lending her distinctive rootsy vocals to seven of the album’s ten tracks. Her constant musical companion Dave Rawlings also lends his vocals to a couple of tracks as well, as does singer/songwriter Laura Veirs.
Then there are the contributions of guitarist Peter Buck. Buck appears on three tracks including guitars on the lead single “Down by the Water” and mandolin on the album opening “Don’t Carry it All.” The highlight of his work however comes on the record’s second track, “Calamity Song.” The song seems to have been built around Buck and his 12-string electric as he produces a riff that easily could have easily been pulled from Murmer or Reckoning from R.E.M.’s early catalogue. The chiming tones that frame the song’s chorus are instantly recognizable as Buck’s handy work.
The whole thing is put together by producer Tucker Martine, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite producers. Martine shares a co-producer credit with the band here, but his track record of recent releases including The Black Prairie album and CD’s by Tift Merritt, Clare Burson, and Abigail Washburn show both his skill and his versatility in the studio.
If I have one knock on The King is Dead, it is still Meloy’s tendency to lean toward the fantastic in his lyrics. His lyrics about warring tribes and subterranean cities sometimes feel at odds with the rootsy nature of the music. This is, admittedly, a minor quibble, and an eccentricity that is balanced nicely by the more grounded tunes such as “January Hymn,” “June Hymn,” and “Rise to Me.” The latter being a devastating duet with Welch that Meloy wrote about his personal struggles of raising a child with autism. Meloy’s own son was diagnosed with the condition a few years ago, and he sings of standing firm against the obstacles that presents to his family.
Whether this is a new direction for The Decemberists or merely a momentary detour is yet to be seen. I can say with certainty, however, that The King is Dead is one of my favorite releases thus far this year and hopefully a sign of things to come.
EDIT: I had to take out the mp3 file, but here’s that clip of Gillian Welch & The Decemberists on Conan.