The King Is Dead

The Decemberists

Capitol Records, 2011

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


You can be forgiven for thinking you’ve wandered into a Tom Petty album when the opening harmonica and midtempo stomp of “Don’t Carry It All” blasts out of the speakers. It’s not that the song bears more than a passing resemblance to “You Don’t Know How It Feels” as much as it is the straightforward, loud production, clarion playing and understandable vocals seems quite far removed from The Crane Wife. Maybe that’s the point.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The Oregon band’s sixth album is a departure from their sound toward the commercial and netted a radio hit in the stomping, harmonica-filled “Down By the Water,” which remains one of their best songs and helps make this album a great starting point into this indie rock band. In keeping with the Americana tradition, nods to folk rock and R.E.M. abound throughout the disc, not only on the chiming guitar fills of “Calamity Song” but by the fact that the Georgia band’s guitarist Peter Buck guests on three tracks here, including “Calamity Song,” and you’ll recognize that twang immediately.

Indeed, the Decemberists always seemed to sound British, or at least attempt to, but this is the first time they really explored American roots music of a type, and it’s a comfortable fit on Colin Meloy. The flat-out country guitar fills of “Rise To Me” are nothing like the band had attempted before and “Rox in the Box” is a solid blend of country and folk rock, with accordion underpinnings to boot, perhaps the only stock Decemberists sound on the disc.

Problem is, the songwriting seems more concerned with nailing the sound and feel than with memorable melodies and hooks. There’s a definite mood here and the disc sounds good if you’re in that frame of mind, but more often than not only “Down By the Water” and maybe “Calamity Song” will really stick in your head. However, two moody pieces saved for the end of the record are uniformly strong, “June Song” and particularly “This Is Why We Fight,” a driving acoustic alt-rocker with a good, too-short guitar solo.

At 10 songs and 40 minutes, the Decemberists have trimmed the excess from previous discs and seem to have left behind the storytelling and prog-rock of the 2000s for a new approach. The King Is Dead is not a great record, but its low-key charms and obvious love of Americana makes it appealing all the same.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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