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Album Review: The King Is Dead by The Decemberists

The King Is Dead by The Decemberists

Rating: ★★★★★

Is that Chris Funk playing pedal steel, Colin Meloy blowing through a harmonica and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings providing backing vocals?  Why, yes it is!

After 2009’s concept (rock opera, even) album The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists have taken a complete left-turn to their folk influences and beyond for The King Is Dead.  Never before have The Decemberists so thoroughly embraced roots music, particular country.  They’ve literally gone to a farm in Oregon to record the album, which plays like one giant breath of fresh air from start to finish.

From the opening notes of “Don’t Carry It All,” the album’s first cut, we know we’re in for something much different with The King Is Dead.  John Moen’s drums don’t sound all that different from the ones Kenny Buttrey played on Neil Young’s Harvest, and we’re quickly given a blast of Meloy’s aforementioned harmonica.  ”Calamity Song” is another early highlight, with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck offering up his distinctive 12-string electric guitar behind lyrics that are Colin Meloy through and through (“And the Andalusian tribes / Setting the lay of Nebraska alight/ ‘Til all that remain is the arms of the angels”).

Fans of Gillian Welch will be delighted to hear that she contributes backing vocals to 7 of the album’s 10 tracks (of these, 3 also feature Welch’s talented collaborator Dave Rawlings).  These backing vocals are far from buried in the mix, as is evidenced on the upbeat “Rox In The Box” and “Down By The Water.”  On these and other tracks, Welch is just as audible as Meloy, and the pair’s voices blend together wonderfully.

Some may argue that a reliance on guest appearances cheapens The Decemberists’ roles as individual contributors.  However, we have never seen band members jump around on instruments like they do on this album.  Guitarist Chris Funk primarily sticks to pedal steel, but also is credited on bouzouki, banjo and electric guitar.  Keyboardist Jenny Conlee plays accordion on four tracks and does so with vigor and passion (her contribution to “Rox In The Box” is worth the price of admission).  On “This Is Why We Fight,” we hear Colin Meloy shining most brightly as a musician, contributing several guitar parts layered together with great skill.  I had never questioned his talents as a singer and songwriter, but this track proves to me that he is also a skilled guitarist to boot.

I’m hesitant to call The King Is Dead the best album The Decemberists have ever done, but it’s definitely my favourite, from the tender ballads to the country rave-ups.

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