Friday, January 14, 2011

Album Review: The Decemberists-The King Is Dead

Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors out there right now. The dude gets major bonus points for his faithful adaptation of my all-time favorite fictional character (Batman), and get even more for kicking my butt with Inception. So now that he's firmly established himself for his distinctive traits as a director, I ask myself how I would react to find out that his next movie was going to be a romantic comedy. Granted, there have been a handful of good romantic comedies over the years (Annie Hall, High Fidelity, to name a couple), but for the most part, romantic comedies are complete crap. So if this scenario were to occur (luckily Nolan's next film will not be a romantic comedy), I think I'd be skeptical, to say the least.

This illustrates how I initially felt about The Decemberists' newest album, The King Is Dead. The Decemberists have long been a band that have impressed me for a variety of reasons. Frontman Colin Meloy can string words together with the best of them. Every song tells a story, from the dark (he recounts the plights of a Bostonian prostitute in A Cautionary Tale), to the light (a night out on the town in Grace Cathedral Hill), Meloy always seems to be able to touch a nerve. Musically, the band seems to take a variety of sounds from all over, including in their lineup the traditional fare (guitar, bass, drums, piano/organ), and the not so traditional (they employ a full-time accordion player, and the bass happens to be upright). This leads to a sound that pulls from traditional rock music, but also sprinkles in the occasional Eastern European sound (at least that's what it sounds like to me).

With this album, it sounds like Meloy was tired of writing stories and just wanted to write some songs. Although this was initially off-putting, after a few listens, I began to hear the true craftsmanship behind the songwriting. Opening track Don't Carry It All is a powerful, straight ahead acoustic rocker, propelled by a persistent drumbeat and a thick harmonica hook in the intro and reprise. Rox In The Box is probably the closest thing to "traditional" Decemberists, as it features prominent accordion and mandolin. First single Down By The Water sounds like a combination of Springsteen and R.E.M. (although I may only see the R.E.M. comparison because Peter Buck makes an appearance in this song). The band also gets major bonus points for enlisting Gillian Welch to sing on this track. All Arise! leans much closer to country than the band ever has before.

One thing that stands out is that this album is a bit more ballad-heavy than their others. No less than four of the ten songs could be considered ballads. This propensity never works on paper, but it works perfectly here. Of these, my personal favorite is January Hymn. What begins as a simple acoustic guitar track builds into something a little more interesting, with shakers, organ, and a backing vocal that sounds like it could accompany Cameron in the Art Institute of Chicago.

This album is one that illustrates to me, ever so finely, that it's hard, but not impossible, to look at a band's newest release as a stand alone entity. My natural tendency to take this album at initial face value is one that could have cost me an album that I've come to enjoy quite thoroughly. Initially, I was expecting Castaways And Cutouts Part 2. But even bands like The Decemberists, who generally make very complex music, like to occasionally let loose and make pop albums, and that's basically what this is. It's not pop meant to be consumed by massive amounts of people, but it's still pop music. And sometimes, it's okay to let talented musicians make pop music (or talented directors make romantic comedies).

January Hymn

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