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The Decemberists - The King Is Dead CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

2.92 | 87 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
2 stars Recent Darlings of PA Turn Their Back on Us

On THE KING IS DEAD, the Decemberists have intentionally moved away from their previous, most progiliciously ambitious work THE HAZARDS OF LOVE. Bandleader, lead vocalist, and chief songwriter Colin Meloy has stated that he was moving from an English folk influence to that of Americana. However, for those of us who immerse themselves in that genre, something is a little amiss. The principle influence for THE KING IS DEAD is R.E.M. (with guitarist Peter Buck contributing on several songs). And R.E.M. is not Americana, or roots rock, or folk rock, or country rock. It's college alt-rock, and this distinction is something that makes me want to call Shenanigans on this whole project. For the truth of the matter is that "back to our roots" for the Decemberists is not the Band, Neil Young, or the Flying Burrito Brothers. Instead, it's R.E.M, the Smiths, and frankly quite a bit of the Indigo Girls. (Whose music I must admit I've listened to for many many hours.) Meloy's identity, for me, has always been deeply entwined in the current nerd chic. Unashamingly pulling out the SAT vocabulary list, making allusions to obscure myths, and yes, even embracing prog, are what made the Decemberists have some identity. And while Wilco has successfully merged country and college rock into a viable music, Meloy is a very different songwriter than Jeff Tweedy. He makes a solid stab here, but clearly this fish has wandered up an alien stream. The move sees his voice sounding as honest as I've ever heard it, but musically he's a little out of his element. His harmonica playing is as basic as it gets, and not in an endearing way (at least to anyone who cares about that instrument). The project is an interesting sidebar for the band, and there are some places where the results are reasonable. But the band has set aside the elements that separated them from the crowded pack. All that's left are a few peeks of Meloy's English major whimsy.

There are quite a few too-close-for-coincidence musical allusions on THE KING IS DEAD, and it's fun trying to figure all of them out. Some are explicit and intentional, and some are not. "January Song" reminds me so much of the mid-90's alt hit by Deep Blue Something "Breakfast at Tiffany's" that I almost start singing along. The fiddle figure in "Rox in the Box" is straight from a song called "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy" which I ironically heard first from English band the Waterboy's record from the same era. The excellellent closer "Dear Avery" features a background vocal that intentionally quotes the sound of mid 70's Fleetwood Mac. Still not Levon Helm, but closer. The R.E.M. and Indigo Girls references are heavy handed and less smile-inducing, but I thought I heard a few sniffs of the Beatles. Maybe the band hasn't abandoned their English side completely.

Again, I must admit that there are some tightly written songs on this album, which Meloy is quick to point out can be just as difficult to create as epics. Favorites are the wonderful opener "Carry It All," and the previously mentioned "Rox in the Box," and "Dear Avery." The song "This Is Why We Fight" seems to be getting all sorts of praise, and it's good but not as powerful as some seem to indicate. The inclusion of a true roots musician, Gillian Welch, was a very fine touch, but she could have been used in a larger role. A few of the songs are just a bit boring, with "Down by the Water" being one of the most worn out lyrics ever. For a guy who can still pull out "Hetty Green, Queen of supply side bonhomie bone-drab" followed by "You know what I mean", the word "cliche" should not be part of the conversation.

This entire review comes from a long-time folk rocker who has heard so much of this style of music that I really wanted to like this album, but I also require a little more to be impressed. From that point of view, I'm looking at a 3 star album that I enjoy but doesn't stand out. Alas, this review is for Prog Archives, and frankly the band has intentionally turned their back on our section of the fan base for this one. That's their perogative, but they can't expect me as a prog fan to applaud them for abandoning their progressive side. Furthermore, since I will still be reaching for THE CRANE WIFE whenever I get my Decemberists urge, I think a 2 star rating really is appropriate. This is not recommend for prog fans in general at all. Decemberists fans will probably split on THE KING IS DEAD, but I suggest that newcomers check out other albums first.

Negoba | 2/5 |


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