The Decemberists – The King is Dead

width=300By Andy Whorehall

The King is Dead. Almost. Just like that, the Portland, Oregon gang pulled a sword out of the prog-rock belly of British Folk & Rock. Abandoning their plight, Colin Meloy & company make a well needed hop to their own territory. Modern America.

The Portland music scene for the past few years may have been sharing the same record collection at some point.  Meloy’s indie peer & english snobbery, songwriting saint, Stephen Malkmus (Pavement, The Jicks), spent the entire decade dabbling in prog rock– as did The Decemberists. Meloy took it a bit further writing suites, stories to rival the band’s spiral into British folk rock stylings.  Though they released entertaining records, they often dragged on with nasally results after repeated listenings.  For my money they hit a home run outta the gate with the 1-song, 18 minute e.p., The Tain.

‘The King is Dead,’ 10 songs, is a well needed departure from their maudlin comfort zone. Meloy opens up lyrically more than before on record while stripping away complicated song arrangements. Pulling words & images from personal & political influences, love & war (This is Why We Fight), serve base as simple reflections for simple songs–but mainly out of love more than war (January Hymn).

Becoming a father may have added to the ease in these songs, melodies (All Arise!). He’s stripped back most of the ‘Shakespearean,’ ‘I’m a well-read-writer effect’ but not entirely.  The simplicity of the songs are a welcomed re-addition to Meloy & his band’s songbook.  ‘The King’ attempts to get back to ‘Castaway & Cutouts,’ and succeeds. Now older, schooled for a few years in Modern American music, & more than qualified to pull it off with wild-card players like Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, Nate Query & John Moen (The Decemberists).

width=300Tapping into the ‘golden’ R.E.M. years, the band compliments a forceful nod to the 80s college rock icons. Peter Buck even sits in on a few songs, certifying all creative intents; stylistic shades of ‘Murmur’ (Calamity Song) up to ‘Out of Time’ (Down By The Water) make appearances throughout the record.  It’s the beautiful folk-country flavored moments that stand out the most (Rise To Me). Gillian Welch, playing the Emmylou Harris role perfectly to Meloy’s Parson, pops in and out of the mix to add much-needed harmonies. Welch’s appearances save many simple songs from being too simple, and even distracting because of Meloy’s signature vocal. All the subtle production touches makes an average record very good. But.

Something strange happens after a few listens that I doubt Meloy, Martine (producer), and the band had any intentions of tapping into. Thoughts of Toad The Wet Sprocket creep in after multiple listens (This is Why We Fight). Can’t tell if it’s a good or bad thing? Time will tell. Something isn’t settling right, though.

Maybe I miss the excitement of the rhythm changes & literary twists of Meloy’s characters in past recordings. Maybe. Either way.  This is a pleasureable, easy, warm, heartfelt listen from a great writer with a great band that needed to take a step back to where they came from. So long, Queen Mary, the only daughter of Henry the VIIIth.

Maybe the ‘King’ is dead, but there’s still a little leftover fish & chips in their band leader’s belly. It’s still there, in his phrasing & annunciations. More than anything though, this is the sound of The Decemberists at home.

AW  | andy whorehall
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The Decemberists - The King is DeadAndy Whorehall
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6 comments on "The Decemberists – The King is Dead"

  1. jojowrinkles on

    Nice piece. I totally agree with you about The Tain. It got lost in the shuffle somewhere, but it is majestic. Anyway, I'm glad Peter Buck decided to recycle some 80's-era R.E.M. guitar work. It's so repetitive, yet it never gets tiring. In fact, we should now turn our attention to the upcoming 25th anniversary edition of Life's Rich Pageant and, in particular, focus on I Believe because, "I believe my shirt is wearing thin/And change is what I believe in." Ah em, hmm…timeless? Yes. How's that for off topic?

  2. The Tain is another treasured 2000s ep that arrived as a gift. I played it for a few friends a few weeks ago. At the 12 minute mark, "IS this the same song?!"

    • jojowrinkles on

      Aw, shit! Did I buy you The Tain? If so, I really am a visionary. When I have 48 hours of uninterrupted Rice time I will write a worthy tribute to John Fahey, the Kinks, or Harry Nilsson or etc. and explain to the people why 1/10 of modern music tickles me in nethers and spread the gospel of the aforementioned brothers on high. I will also reveal why only 1/20 female singers are enjoyable at that time.

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  5. I bought this on vinyl and love it. I have to disagree with the assumption that all their recent outings were “folk prog”. Picaresque is a fantastic , song driven album as well.

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