Review: The Decemberists’ ‘The King is Dead’

Jan. 28, 2011, 12:37 a.m.

Review: The Decemberists' 'The King is Dead'
Courtesy of Rough Trade Records

There will be no more quirky indie rock operas from The Decemberists at least that’s the message implied on “The King Is Dead,” the sixth and latest studio release from the band. If you were looking for another dramatic, genre-bending concept album like “The Hazards of Love,” look elsewhere. The theatrical quasi mash-ups have fallen away to reveal a much more sparse, country-leaning instrumentation courtesy of the enlisted help of R.E.M. greats Peter Buck (guitarist) and Tucker Martine (producer).

“The King Is Dead” is the Portland-based band redefining its whole musical identity: gone are the quirky storylines and obscure lyrics, replaced by twangy slide guitar and wailing harmonicas. A combination of rootsy Americana and unsophisticated folk, the music still bears enough of a peculiar hint through Colin Meloy’s unmistakable tone to deserve its own sub-genre of indie music: “quaint pop.” Mostly acoustic, the album proves there is no need for fancy concept albums if your name is The Decemberists.

The R.E.M. influence Meloy has referenced as inspiration for the album makes itself patent in the first couple of songs on the album, which feature R.E.M guitarist Buck. “Don’t Carry It All” is as upbeat as the album gets, guitar-based and lumbering, with soulful harmonica verses competing with Meloy’s strong vocals for the spotlight. Second in line, “Calamity Song” proves the most difficult track to listen to, not because of a lack in musicianship or songwriting, but because of the striking similarity the opening guitar riff has with that of an R.E.M. classic, “Talk About the Passion.”

Indistinguishable in rhythm and plucking style, the guitar riffs and subsequent verses in both songs sound so eerily similar that it’s impossible to listen to “Calamity” without running “Passion” through your head on top of it. Although it’s an enjoyable track, swift and reminiscent of early R.E.M. releases, it does not sound particular to The Decemberists. In a closing line, Meloy even slurs his vocals in typical Michael Stipe fashion. The track is one example of several on the album which show that, in trying to reinvent themselves by emulating the greats, the band has nearly lost its own identity.

Two of the gems on the album are “Rise To Me,” an acoustic, emotional Americana rendition, and “Rox In the Box.” The former is a beautiful ballad which would sound just in tune with any other song on a country radio station – the slide guitar and harmonicas make more than a transitory appearance. The second, a whirlwind tour-de-force with the fiddle as the central figure, features a quick dance step with the fiddle leading the rhythm. It ages the sound of the track, making it sound quaint – a quality suggestive of the band’s earlier releases.

While the album alternates between slow acoustic folk or country numbers and more upbeat Americana renditions, the most interesting mix of genres shows up in the last track on the album, “Dear Avery.” What starts as a down-tempo, alt-country rendition morphs into the riskiest track on the album through its slide guitar solo. In an offbeat take typical of The Decemberists, the guitar solo is played with unconventional chords and is stretched to sound more like swirling pedal effects, all the while layering with soft choruses and gentle drums.

As the final finger picking dies away, I can’t help but wonder why, if The Decemberists have worked so hard toward building a reputation for themselves as concept musicians, they decided to release a no-concept folksy alt-country album in 2011. Only time, and the next release, will tell if the new inclination will hold.

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