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This and that vaguely concerning the new Decemberists album

12/02/2011

I used to be a bit dismissive of country but it’s a genre that’s grown on me massively during the past few years. I’ve noticed that for whatever cosmic quirk, a lot of the artists I love have dabbled in country music more or less at some point during their careers, be it country-country or the hazily vaguely defined ‘alt-country’. I suppose it’s an integrated part of the Northern American musico-cultural heritage that it can’t help but surface sooner or later at some point.

In any case, the new album by The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead – is pretty much the first album that I can define as country in whole rather than just slap with an “inspired by” tag, and it’s the first album of its kind I find myself enjoying as a whole. The fact that it’s got only ten tracks might be a reason for that (doesn’t leave much room for error, after all) but most of all, it’s simply an excellently made album. If you had given this to me a few years ago I might have shrugged it off and not even bothered to give it a second listen – right now the only reason why I’ve been slightly neglecting it ever since around the time it was released was because my attention’s been stolen by some other recent things. And outside the country angle, it’s also an album that’s heavily been inspired by R.E.M. – not in the sense that each track sounds like an outtake from the Athens greats (they do not) but if you’ve really integrated yourself with the R.E.M. catalogue it’s really easy to hear the inspiration between the lines and behind the works. Meloy, the Decemberists frontman, has repeatedly said R.E.M. were a big influence so it’s not all imaginary either. Hell, the cover of R.E.M.’s “Cuyahoga” that the Decs played recently is an extremely faithful rendition of the original yet it sounds like it would have fit on The King Is Dead perfectly – proof, if you needed it.

But as said, in its core it’s simply a well-made album. The songs are good. The instrumental touches are good. Meloy’s doing a good job as a frontman and he’s backed by some rather good harmonies. The production, while nothing all too special, supports the music in a good way and balances that line between audible and unintrusive. I lack both the knowledge of the general context around the album/band and the amount of digestation time needed to speak on proper personal impact the album might have/have not, but it’s easy enough to spot that it’s a good album. You know something’s been done right when you actively seek out to listen to it.

The amusing thing though is that this is my first Decemberists album. My past brushes with the band have been extremely light and the only thing I can remember from the few songs I’ve heard before (singles from the earliest, canonised albums I believe) have all been pleasant enough and I’ve always liked Meloy’s voice, but that’s about it. There’s been something almost frustratingly lightweight in them, like they were impossible to get a hold on despite their positive sides. But even that sampling amounts to around three songs and The King Is Dead serves as my first main excursion to the Decs. It’s always somewhat questionable to hear a band’s out-of-character sidepath album as the first sampler and I imagine all it’s doing is setting up a path for disappointment and disaster in the future when I begin to dig deeper into the catalogue.

But that’s a possible issue for the future, right now we can be sure of two things:

  1. The King Is Dead is a very good album and starts of 2011 rather dandily and
  2. even if it might not make it to a best of list by the end of the year, “This Is Why We Fight” and “Rox in the Box” definitely belong in a song version of that
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