Long Live The King

Originally Published In The Daily Free Press on 1/30/11

A quick look through the Decemberists’ back catalogue reveals a band influenced by eclectic music that isn’t afraid of taking risks. The Portland-based group toyed with European, DeVotchKa-esque elements on The Tain (Kill Rock Stars) and incorporated a much heavier electric sound for their 2009 rock opera entitled The Hazards of Love (Capitol).  For their latest release,The King Is Dead (Capitol), the band toned down their celebrated quirkiness as they looked to country and folk to guide them.

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Joining the Decemberists for a few tracks on this album is Peter Buck of R.E.M, whose influence is most apparent in the album’s opener, “Don’t Carry It All,” and the album’s first single, “Down By The Water.” The former track begins a bit like Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” with harmonica spruced in before Colin Meloy’s ever-unique voice makes an entrance. Also featured on the track is singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, whose voice meshes fantastically when harmonizing with Meloy’s. Some captivating mandolin work and upbeat drumming line the song, a great primer to the Decemberists’ new sound. “Down By The Water” sounds much more like R.E.M than any other track on the album, and once again, the harmonica blasts and Welch’s vocals effectively complement Meloy’s, creating a very strong and upbeat track.

“All Arise” oozes bluegrass twang and the rollicking piano, dual vocals and string arrangements make this a fun and playful song that’s a delight to listen to. “Rise To Me” sounds like an expanded version of “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned),” containing similar slide guitar and country accents, but with abundant harmonica and stronger harmonies.

With songs like “All Arise,” “Rise To Me,” “June Hymn” and more, it is obvious that the Decemberists were influenced by folk and country music on this album. These influences, however, aren’t limited to the American tradition. “Rox In The Box” is a playful shuffle-romp clearly influenced by Irish folk, which further exhibits the Decemberists’ varied musical influences.

One noticeable change of pace on the album is “This Is Why We Fight.” The track is prominently more sinister and heavier than any other on the album, and yet, it doesn’t feel misplaced.  While the drumming is more sprawling than on other tracks and, at times, the song gives off hints of an old-time Western, the previously-mentioned country twang and harmonica are still ever present.

While The King Is Dead is not quite what you’d expect from the Decemberists, it is still a very strong album. After The Hazards of Love, there was a danger that the band could continue with an even grander, intricate and overly complicated sound. Fortunately, the band suppressed this urge and created a fine back-to-roots country stomper that’s arguably their most upbeat album yet.

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