DAVE DAVIES, host:
The Decemberists is a Portland, Oregon-based band that formed a decade ago. The band's albums have been characterized by a wide variety of styles, from indie rock minimalism to art rock expansiveness.
Rock critic Ken Tucker says the band's new album, "The King is Dead," finds The Decemberists using shorter song forms and guest collaborators such as R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck.
Here's his review.
(Soundbite of song, "Calamity Song")
THE DECEMBERISTS (Musicians): (Singing) Had a dream you and me and the war of the end times. And I believe California succumbed to the fault line. We heaved relief as scores of innocents died. And the Andalusian tribes, setting the (unintelligible) back alive, till all that remains is the arms of the angel.
KEN TUCKER: The Decemberists made their reputation on the strength of group leader Colin Meloy's large, tortured vocabulary and penchant for spinning 10-minute-plus song cycles with influences ranging from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Death Cab for Cutie. Too often, Meloy's use of 19th-century locutions has been pretty cutesy itself. Thus, any attempt by this clever, ambitious man to impose some concision on his music can only be beneficial. This quality is what makes the 10 songs on "The King Is Dead" cohere as The Decemberists' best album to date, thanks to brisk tunes such as this one called "Don't Carry It All."
(Soundbite of song, "Don't Carry It All")
THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Here we come to a turning of the season, witness to the arc towards the sun. A neighbor's blessed burden within reason becomes a burden borne of all and one.
And nobody, nobody knows. Let the yolk fall from our shoulders. Don't carry it all, don't carry it all. We are all our hands and holders beneath this bold and brilliant sun. And this I swear to all.
TUCKER: We can assume that the band's album title, "The King Is Dead," is a cheerful one - this is, after all, a group that took its name from an uprising, one of whose aims was to abolish monarchy, and which has been known to play the Soviet national anthem to open their shows. But thankfully, there's little garrulous rabblerousing on "The King Is Dead." Instead, Colin Meloy and his band have enlisted singer Gillian Welch and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to help make a record heavily influenced by '70s folk-rock, but with fresh riffs, not mere nostalgia. The result is a fine song, such as the album's first single, "Down By the Water," featuring both Buck and Welch.
(Soundbite of song, Down By the Water")
THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) See this ancient riverbed. See where all the follies have led. Down by the water. Down by the old main drag.
I was just some towheaded teen. Feeling round for fingers to get in between. Down by the water. Down by the old main drag.
The season rubs me wrong. The summer swells anon. So knock me down, tear me up but I would bare it all broken just to fill my cup. Down by the water. Down by the old main drag.
TUCKER: There's a song that manages to triumph over self-conscious phrasings such as the summer swells anon and sweet descend this rabble round. Colin Meloy often writes lyrics as though he never quite recovered from a first encounter with the work of Algernon Swinburne. But the guy has a terrific voice: plaintive without being whiny, earnest without being maudlin, coarsened by a fine graininess.
Always be skeptical of a fellow who has said numerous times that he was heavily influenced by the crown prince of mope-rock, Morrissey. But this time around, Meloy is describing "The King Is Dead" as a collection that's quote, "an exercise in restraint" and it's more influenced by R.E.M and Neil Young. Listening to country and bluegrass music hasn't hurt, either, on one of the best songs here called "All Arise!"
(Soundbite of song, "All Arise!")
THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Baby wants a new spin. Baby wants a broken heart. Hear you found the lynchpin to keep it all from falling apart. But you keep on going. You keep on rolling. Better find a way. Better kick it from your big brown eyes. Hear it tightens up when you fall at the 15th try. Like a ship at ocean. Like a ship at ocean.
TUCKER: One of the most enjoyable aspects of all of The Decemberists' albums is that the band avoids the autobiographical impulse: the band doesn't spill out its memories or its neuroses with either urgency or emo lassitude. Meloy and his colleagues are, at best, real craftspeople, who take pride in constructing solid blocks of song; packages that open up to reveal, at their sturdiest, an interest in and appreciation of the world around them. For that, we can put up with the occasional fussy phrasing or arch alliteration.
As Meloy says in one of my favorite lines on this album - which is all the better for sounding so colloquial and tossed-off: it's well-advised that you follow your own bag.
Indeed it is.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "The King is Dead" by the Decemberists. And listen to this, the entire album is being streamed online today only at nprmusic.org.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of song, "Winter Sunday")
THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) On a winter's Sunday I go to clear away the snow and greener ground below...
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