Americana/rock fans, get happy. The Decemberists new album sounds like it was made by a group of real people with a united musical purpose. In other words, they sound like a band. Though they have been together about 10 years, I get a feeling that they recently got a shot in the arm that is propelling them to give it their all, like they have all agreed that “This is why we’re here, so let’s do it!” A great level for any band to reach.
And by request of frontman and vocalist Colin Meloy, there’s something on this record that only Peter Buck can bring to the table. Somehow, having Peter around can give a band a bit more of a purpose. He sounds like he loves to play, and it shows. The little touches he adds, while never over the top, are well placed, adding a new character that steps up the propulsion, both musically and “psycho-dynamically.
The record starts with a song that could easily become their theme song. “Don’t Carry it All“ is a strong demonstration of every member’s abilities. Meloy unabashedly rings out like a band from Athens, Georgia, but for the Nor’west coast twinge of Portland, OR, the band’s home. From a light intro verse, the piece swells into a full blown picture of a rock band, with his ubiquitous vocal counterpart, Jenny Conlee, kicking in with the bass into the second verse. And the universal message of ”don’t carry it all” is one we can all feel good about.
“Calamity Song” is both rhythmically playful while lyrically telling a tale of what could be. Mr. Buck breaks out his special “jangle pick” on this one, fueling this fun-fest to some to some high heights.
“Rise to Me” takes us from fun-land to a greener part of America, with some perfectly placed pedal-steel parts which, when added to the Dylan-esque harmonica, leaves this listener with a wish to get back to simpler things, to get away from our asphalt meadows. And there’s a gentle tug to come along with them.
It’s not exactly clear what “Rox in the Box” is all about; in fact, it could be about a couple of things, each having to do with some painstaking work and an element of danger that keeps the listener looking over his shoulder. But Meloy never seems to have a problem conjuring vision after vision, and when added to the minor keyed “fiddle” and a fun but wary sing along chorus, it’s a little jewel that adds easily to the eclectic bag of tunes.
Lonely and haunting are about all you can say when describing “January Hymn“. In his best Athens voice, Meloy sounds a bit too optimistic that this one will have a happy ending, given the musical tragedy he gives us a glimpse of. As if the reality hasn’t quite soaked in. “January” takes us to that place that every one of us has been, at least once. It’s a painful part of being human, and the band pays it the reverence that it’s due.
“Down by the Water” … is a hit. It’s one that fans will love and not fans yet can use to get on board. Meloy and Peter Buck together on this track become the Buck/Stipe that uncannily gives the Athens crowd the obvious next step that they stopped short of. It’s hard to describe except to say it screams of sing along hit, a bit of a nostalgia, and had R.E.M. written it instead of The Decemberists, it would have ended up on all of their “Best of” records.
Have the words lynch pin EVER been used in a song. What a great sign. “NO RULES.” But one rule that has shown up consistently on this record is melody. And when a melody is a breeze to sing along with, some call it an “infectious” melody. (It grows on you! Yikes!). Throw in a fun lyric and a fun musical vehicle to drive that lyric in, and you have “All Arise“, another winner. And thanks for not naming it “Just be mine tonight”.
Another hymn; it’s getting into summer in Springville (Hill?). “June Hymn” is close to being a folk standard with one difference. Jenny really shines on this when it bursts into a 3 part harmony. It gives you a brief look into her soul and it shows her passion in a place where usually more generic is called for to keep the spotlight on the frontman. In “June Hymn“ she’s but an inch away. (She’s good!)
When this title, “This is Why We Fight” shows up … it’s time to batten down the heart hatches for fear of hearing a bad story. Or personal drama. But here, the band gives us the more meaningful “big picture” look at the absurdity of those moments. It’s an aggressive battle hymn that gives reason for pause before we break things that don’t mend easily, if at all.
Something we’re all guilty of. A succinct song that gets to the point, then leaves us with a happy ending, both musically and lyrically.
I don’t know the Avery from “Dear Avery“, but she should consider herself lucky to have someone somewhere that would write a song like this for her. And to have music, like the rest of the record, that one just cannot neatly compartmentalize written for her.
The Decemberists are a prize, hard to find today, in a sea full of mediocre stuff that gets put together in someones bedroom. They show a unity that is a rare collaboration of musical minds and spirits, probably done in a place where they could bounce ideas off each other easily, but still hold reality at bay long enough to try different things and, amazingly, learn a few things. Under the guidance of Colin Meloy, the unit presents a focused direction, but in a lot of different colors, some bright, others dark … kind of like music. We are a long way from hearing the last of these folks, as they seem to just now be finding some fun AND purpose in the world. Ten years is not a long time to get to that point by ANY band.
John Hampton is a Grammy winning producer/recording engineer whose experience includes working on albums with The Dead Weather, The Gin Blossoms, The White Stripes, The Replacements, The Cramps, Alex Chilton and John Kilzer.