How do you follow an elaborate song cycle of old English folk songs about love? Well, if you're The Decemberists, you apparently channel your inner Wilco.
Yes, "The King Is Dead" (EMI) is about as much of an about-face from 2009's "The Hazards of Love" that The Decemberists could manage, trading in broad epics for decidedly smaller alt-country stories with the help of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck on guitar and the gorgeous backing vocals of Gillian Welch.
Head Decemberist Colin Meloy said that in the middle of the "Hazards of Love" tour, he wanted to simply play some "normal songs." Well, he has plenty to choose from here.
What set The Decemberists apart from the rest of the indie-folk crowd were their ambitions - their desire to draw inspiration from unlikely sources, including Irish myths and Japanese folk tales. Remove those ambitions, and much of "The King Is Dead" could be from almost anyone.
The lovely "January Hymn" is a simple delight, but it bears no distinguishing Decemberists marks. "Don't Carry It All" sounds like Whiskeytown-era Ryan Adams. "Down by the Water" could be "Out of Time"-era R.E.M. And "Rise to Me" feels like Jeff Tweedy interpreting Neil Young. It's unexpected to hear Meloy and friends at their most straightforward.
"The King is Dead" is like a PB&J delivered when you were expecting a wild Asian fusion tasting menu. It's well built and dependable but still a surprise.
The Decemberists: "The King Is Dead"
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BOTTOM LINE: The Decemberists ditch concepts for country