So there's an ice storm in the Washington, DC metro area today, and that means the newspaper didn't come until later in the day. Say what you will about the imminent death of the daily physical paper, I'll hold onto my Washington Post until it fades into the distance.
I was all set to review the new Decemberists album, and Chris Richards in the Post beat me to it. In a review which also included a stab at the new Iron and Wine album, he moaned about the current state of indie music and how it's become predictable and boring. He chastised Colin Meloy for living in the wrong century.
That's not the review I would have written.
Nope, I really like "The King Is Dead". Mr. Richards seems to have missed the point of the whole thing. Yes, the Decemberists have tended to some pretension in the past. Colin Meloy does frequently write lyrics about seasons changing and yellow bonnets.
But this album is the result of a band at the top of their form. If you've liked anything about the Decemberists in the past, you'll love this record. The Decemberists have tightened up their sound, and have ended up sounding a bit more like the Eagles than Fairport Convention.
Opening track "Don't Carry It All" is a coiled, taut construction of harmonica, acoustic guitar, and mandolins which is near-perfect in execution. And that's just the beginning! "Calamity Song" and "Rise To Me" are next, showing a confidence and brightness that we always knew the band was capable of. It's like all the pieces of the puzzle that is the Decemberists have fallen into place and produced a cohesive sound that is uniquely their own.
Yes, it still owes something to the "trad. arranged by" bands of the British seventies, and veers a bit closer to Fleet Foxes than it's done before, but this is the epitome of the Decemberists coming into their own.
The album is almost completely driven by acoustic guitars, with only a few exceptions. Most of the songs adhere to the folk spectrum, but there are a couple of tunes that take their cue from the first few albums by R.E.M., with the added bonus of Peter Buck (of R.E.M.!) on guitar. "Down By the Water", and "This Is Why We Fight" sound much more in the American tradition than, say, "Rox In the Box", which could have fit in on an early Steeleye Span record.
Then we've got "All Arise!", which is decidedly American C&W flavored. While it's not a bad song, it's actually a bit comical, because it sounds like a Pacific Northwest indie group trying to do Nashville.
We've got a pair of "hymns" devoted to January and June, both of which are lovely ballads which are in the pastoral tradition. The album ends with the most morose song on the record, "Dear Avery". Colin Meloy has said that the song is a sort of "letter from a mother to a soldier". The song is a low-key address to the separation and loneliness suffered by parents and children during a time of war. Big topic, for sure, but the song does it justice. No matter what the Washington Post says, this is an album worth listening to. The variety of the music, the tightness of the band, and the flow of the songwriting all come together to give us the first great record of 2011. On the England Swings scale of 1-10, I give the Decemberists a 9.