Some of my favorite albums are ones where an artist in mid-career consciously dialed their thing back a bit - Beggars Banquet, Nebraska, Automatic for the People. The focus shifts away from the reach for the bold musical statement, a big sound suitable for larger venues, inventive production, overdub after overdub and instead to the compositions themselves. Strip it down – back to just song, melody and singer - like a great classic country song.
The King of Dead, released this week, is the Decemberists 6th album and to my ears, by far, by a country mile as it were, their best. Just song after very well crafted song, terrific harmonies and melodies, irresistible.
The record is an abrupt departure from its predecessor, The Hazards of Love, an intricate dense art rock experiment, much beloved by both critics and fans (if not me). But where do you go after that?
If you are Colin Meloy and the Decemberists, you go to the country, or at least to a farm outside Portland, home to the Pickathon, a great summer musicfest. Away from the rock opera and into the wide open natural sound of the organic farm-to-table Oregon countryside.
Meloy’s artistically simpler living also involved seeking inspiration in the music that moved him to start writing songs and form a band in the first place – country folk rock - R.E.M., the Smiths, Fairport Convention. And if you are going to do it, do it right – bring in Peter Buck to play his signature Rickenbacker and mandolin on four songs, notably the terrific first single “Down by the Water,” which unapologetically draws from “One I Love” and “Driver 8”. (sadly a great recent performance on Conan's show was yanked off of YouTube though you can find it on various web sites, but it can't be embedded here, so here's another version)
And why stop there? The Decemberists went all in on the Americana country folk vibe and also brought in Gillian Welch to sing. Her vocals on “Down by the Water”, “Dear Avery” and “Rox in the Box” are perfect and add a great deal to this record.
Other standout tracks are the punchy lead track “Don’t Carry It All”, the classic country “All Arise!” and the insanely catchy “This is Why We Fight”. By stripping things back, and also simplifying the story telling aspects of the lyrics, Meloy shows how strong a songwriter he is, with quite a bit less Masterpiece Theatre on this one and a lot more big pop hook.
One last thought - clocking in at 40 minutes, you can just dive in and enjoy this start to finish, every song a winner. Attn bands: Just because a CD will hold 75 minutes worth of music doesn’t mean you should fill them up, As a songwriter friend of mine once said, no one ever complained that Blood on the Tracks or Tupelo Honey weren’t long enough.
You can listen to the whole thing here in a live performance from this week:
It’s only January and we already have one truly great record in 2011.Website: The Decemberists