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Posted on January 27th, 2011 (3:26 pm) by Chad Flanders

The buzz surrounding the Decemberists’ new release is how accessible they’ve made their sound. It’s poppier, peppier, up-tempo, and the beats are stronger. Colin Meloy’s voice sounds tuneful, even pretty. There is no pretension to rock opera here, no obscure references to crane wives and rakes and invented mythologies. Gone are the long rambling (and occasionally brilliant) organ solos, and homages to prog rock. As the New York Times quoted Meloy as announcing at a recent concert: “We do short songs now.”

We should be careful not to overstate things. There are still bits and pieces of the old Decembrist sound here -- especially “Down By The Water”, which has the same wailing quality as any number of early tracks. Some lyrical obscurities also emerge here (as in a line about the “war against the enzymes” in “Calamity Song”). And we shouldn’t discount that the Decembrists have occasionally flirted with the brighter, sexier sound that’s on display here -- “July, July” or even “O Valencia!” -- were fun, singable songs.

But this album is a departure, and so we have to ask: was it worth it? For fans of the old sound, the question has to be approached carefully. The old sound required a certain amount of getting used to. Meloy’s voice at first was grating, and off-key. You had to grow to like it. As their sound became more expansive and experimental, you had to learn to tolerate the longer, crazier songs to get to the good stuff -- and then somehow, slowly, you could recognize the long, crazy songs as good, too.

So it can seem a little insulting when they make things all the sudden easy for us. “All Arise!” slips into an easy country groove, and humming along becomes almost mandatory. The strong opening track, “Don’t Carry It All”, moves powerfully and elegantly; even the lyrics seem to carry an instantly graspable meaning (don’t take everything on yourself, share the burden, others will be willing to help you out). “Rox in the Box” skips along effortlessly. Where’s the challenge in all of this?

It’s interesting to wonder what we would think of The King is Dead if it were the Decemberists’ first album. We’d probably consider it a very good album, but not a great one. There’s enough diversity here to know this is more than a band that can slather a harmonica over a song and make it work a la the Gin Blossoms. We might, if this were the Decemberists’ first album, remark on the inflections of R.E.M. in it (“Calamity Song”), or the Shins (“January Hymn”), and even the shades of Fleetwood Mac (“Dear Avery”) and Simon & Garfunkel (“June Hymn”). Indeed, there’s not really a bad song here.

However, this isn’t the Decemberists’ first album; they have a history, and we should hear -- and judge -- this album in light of that history. Only “Why We Fight” really shows the brilliance and the originality that characterized the band’s past work. Other than that, The King is Dead shows the Decemberists can do the mainstream thing pretty darn well.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of these songs will break your heart. Some will put a smile on your face. Yet, the Decemberists are potentially better than these clichés: they can transcend them. Now that they’ve done the mainstream thing, they should go back to being the Decemberists, making strange obscure stories meanderingly told, and sung just a little out of tune. And oh yeah, and bring back the long songs.

Track List:

1. Don’t Carry It All
2. Calamity Song
3. Rise To Me
4. Rox in the Box
5. January Hymn
6. Down By the Water
7. All Arise!
8. June Hymn
9. This Is Why We Fight
10. Dear Avery

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