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January 12th, 2011 WW MUSIC STAFF | Music Stories
 

First Listen: The Decemberists

The King Is Dead (Capitol Records)

     
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[AMERICANA] As the Decemberists’ hype machine once again prepares its bayonets for war, we couldn’t help but share some gut reactions from our initial listens to the new disc, The King Is Dead. Look for more in-depth coverage when the band plays Portland next month, but here are 10 WW writers’ initial takes on the 10 tracks from the new disc.

“Don’t Carry It All”
I’m immediately reminded of Tom Petty’s “Last Dance With Mary Jane” as the Decemberists’ new record opens up. I’m also impressed with Colin Meloy’s vocal restraint—I’d call it an impassioned holler—and his lyrical restraint, as well. CASEY JARMAN.

“Calamity Song”
Happy New Year, everybody. The Decemberists have turned their dire gaze from the literary past to predictions of future calamity. Here Meloy spins out a vision of happy hell, where California has fallen into the ocean and birds pick at our bones. KELLY CLARKE.

“Rise to Me”
Meloy borrows a few licks from some road-weary singer-songwriter type—Rocky Votolato, maybe?—and a really heartbreaking pedal steel. I love it, right up until the harmonica solo. BEN WATERHOUSE.

“Rox in the Box”
Wherein the band fully dives into the country folk end of the pool. This is the stately, barn-hoppin’ dance song/sea chantey Meloy has always hinted at, with relatively simple countdown lyrics, accordion and Gillian Welch’s perfect harmonies. Still kinda miss the mutton chops, though. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.

“January Hymn”
If there’s one thing tote bag-carrying NPR mothers love, it’s blandly pretty acoustic ballads with the word “hymn” in the title. Never let anyone say the Decemberists don’t know their audience. This is indeed a pretty-yet-unremarkable acoustic ballad. MATTHEW SINGER.

“Down By the Water”
Welch’s guest vocals pair really well with Meloy’s here, and contribute a lot to the song’s almost Americana edge. My attention span is too short to work out what the song is about. I’m sure it’s a very touching and tragic tale of a sailor falling in love with a mermaid with leprosy or something. RUTH BROWN.

“All Arise!”
This track is a nice showcase for the Decemberists’ ability to shape-shift their sound into whatever genre they dare tackle (in this case, the humble roll of vintage country-and-western). ROBERT HAM.

“June Hymn”
“June Hymn” strongly evokes thoughts of James Taylor, or a more melodic and baroque Bob Dylan. But it’s a warm familiarity, like a country drive at sunset—it’s something we all know—but the sort of beauty that never gets old. KEVIN DAVIS.

“This Is Why We Fight”
Mumford and Sons teased the Decemberists’ M.O. into jock-friendly dad rock and got big in the process, and here Colin and company show the British lads who’s boss with a rollicking anthem nearly as insipid as “Little Lion Man” and that other slab of Mumford cheese we all sing along to when no one’s looking. CHRIS STAMM.

“Dear Avery”
This track tries for lyrical simplicity and delivers an emotion rather than a “Here are some fancy words.” Gillian Welch is an amazing singer to have in the room, but almost distractingly so, like in an independent movie with one big star in a minor role. NICK JAINA.


SEE IT: The Decemberists’ new album, The King is Dead, drops on Tuesday, Jan. 18.
 
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