Published on BLURT – Friday, Jan. 21, 2011
A new album finds the beloved avatars of the nü-folk-rock in transition – and fully in command.
BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA
Their appeal is undeniable.
In over ten years, Portland’s Decemberists – frontman Colin Meloy, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query drummer John Moen – have accumulated a fiercely loyal following. It’s a fanbase that, through sheer commitment and desire, has familiarized itself with the ins and outs of both the band and its music. Given that, there has still been some question over how those fans would react to the Decemberists’ newest record, The King is Dead.
Released this week, The King is Dead, the group’s sixth studio album and third for Capitol Records, is an intentional and inspired departure from the rousing complexity of 2009’s song-cycle, The Hazards of Love. But if that platter was a sprawling epic then The King is Dead is a return to roots. Much like their 2002 debut Castaways and Cutouts, and 2003’s follow-up Her Majesty the Decemberists, The King is Deadimparts an assured simplicity that, while intrinsic and inornate, is quite fervid in its appeal. From the gleaming, harmonica-laden opener, “Don’t Carry it All,” to the somber, bare-bone quiet of closer “Dear Avery,” it’s steeped in the rustic countryside, in the old American West – an omnibus of unvarnished canticles that draw on equal parts idyllic folk balladry, steadfast rock, and doleful country influenced by the likes of Neil Young, Gram Parsons and R.E.M.
According to 37-year-old bassist (and father) Query, the ten tracks that appear on the album – seven of which feature revered Americana singer-songwriter Gillian Welch and her musical partner, Dave Rawlings, and three with R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck – were chosen by Meloy and Grammy-nominated producer Tucker Martine, who also worked on 2006’s The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love. It was apparent from launch what handful of songs was to make the cut but the others, such as the sunlit ‘70s-rock inspired track “All Arise!”, were picked based on the vibe it projected.
“[‘All Arise!’] had such a great, sort of laid back feel,” he says, speaking from his home in Portland. “It sort of pushes the record to a folk-ier, country-ier direction, which kind of sits nicely with some of the other songs.”
Unlike The Hazards of Love, The King is Dead resembles more of a catalog of songs rather than an unremitting romance of thespian swells and sweeping bravura – or, rather, a technically challenging piece that fit together like “a big puzzle.” It’s not that they aren’t cohesive, Query explains, as much as they work just as well when taken on their own.
“It was more about creating a soundscape to go with these songs,” he says, clearly pleased by the way the album turned out. “It just seemed like the songs made sense to approach [them] without over-thinking it, just let our more Americana, rootsy influences shine through instead of trying to create this really specific vision.”
But this simplicity that The King is Dead fosters is far easier to absorb than it may have been to craft. According to Query, while some tracks on the record came together rather quickly, others were more challenging than anticipated due in part to seeking an appropriate balance between the simplest “possible approach and the most interesting.”
“The hardest part about playing and recording music,” he continues, “is knowing just how little to add and just how much to subtract when you’re trying to strip it back because playing the simplest possible part could be really boring but playing the most interesting [part] can end up just sounding dull and over-thought. It’s a really tough middle ground to find.”
“The songs were pretty straight-forward, pretty easy to learn how to play, but then it’s a matter of getting just the right energy on tape, captured in a way that’s compelling. That is a lot harder to do than it sounds.”
Still, for whatever stark contrast there may be sonically, The King is Dead, is unequivocally Decemberists, already finding its way to no. 1 Most Viewed and no. 1 Most Recommended on NPR Music’s “Exclusive First Listen” full-album preview. But it’s not just in Meloy’s lyrical use of nature’s elements, whether arcane or bucolic. (One example: on “Rise to M,” Meloy sings, “Big mountain, wide river / There’s an ancient pull / These tree trunks, these stream beds / Leave our bellies full”.) Nor is it in the band’s trademark scores and intones of splendor and twang. The similarity to the Decemberists’ previous works, instead, lies in The King is Dead‘s foundation, be it less clearly defined.
Where their 2004 single, “The Tain,” centered on an Irish myth, 2005’s Picaresquetook from Spanish prose, The Crane Wife rose from an olden Japanese folk fable, andThe Hazards of Love was based on English folk tunes, The King is Dead finds itself evoking “the concept of the barn.” This, which Query calls the “meat of the record and sound,” derives from where the five-piece crafted their latest effort: in a converted barn on the 80-acre Pendarvis Farm, owned by Sherry and Scott Pendarvis, located on the outskirts of Portland in Mt. Scott. According to the bassist, while there was no isolation between instruments, they found themselves sequestered from the world outside, rainfall and wintry air swathing the remote homestead, unable to “just pop home” or leave for an hour, an easy feat when working in a “professional” studio. (Some members apparently did return home every night while others found camp on the farm a few nights.) And when you weren’t in the midst of recording, he says, you were either in the room, mute by requirement, or outside and not involved.
“It’s quite beautiful out there. There were horses,” Query reflects, with warmth. “It helped set the mood for doing some of the more pastoral songs.”
“I feel like we were more relaxed than at a usual recording session,” adds Jenny Conlee, remarking on the farm, which is home to the Pickathon Indie Roots Music Festival. “It also helped from being distracted by everyday things. Once we were out there, it was all about the record and nothing else.”
These hushed, tranquil, and gorgeous moments were also captured on film by Los Angeles-based photographer Autumn de Wilde from the Impossible Project in the form of 2,500 Polaroids (“It really was the impossible project,” says Query. “Taking 2,500 Polaroids takes for-ever but it turned out really cool and it was a genius idea.”) When the pricey deluxe edition of The King is Dead is purchased, these limited edition photographs will be available exclusively online at Thedecemberists.com, along with a one-of-a-kind portrait from the series, a 72-page hardcover book featuring 250 unique Polaroids by de Wilde and illustrations by artist and Meloy’s wife, Carson Ellis, The King is Dead on 180-gram white vinyl with a special cover, and Pendarvia DVD, a 30-minute short film about the album’s making.
According to Conlee, recording in the country was an established dream of sorts, long discussed among the Decemberists clan. So when Meloy approached the band with a batch of “very rootsy, stripped down tunes”, it only felt right to take to a barn for recording. (Query says the frontman first brought the songs during The Hazards of Love tour in 2009, and they played several of them live during that time.) The whole process, from inception to mastering, took nearly five months, with close to two months spent on daily dedication and the rest adding “extra bits and bobs” periodically. During their time at the barn, R.E.M.’s Buck, who Query describes as “a really interesting guitar player,” recorded his parts as well. Later on, Welch and Rawlings recorded their contributions with producer Martine in Los Angeles.
Conlee, who, along with Query, Funk, and violinist Annalisa Tornfelt, another contributor on The King is Dead, play in the neo-bluegrass/folk outfit Black Prairie. She says she was “very honored” to have Americana icon Welch on their album. “We got to have [her] sing with us at our [November 18] appearance on ‘Conan’ last month. She is an incredibly warm person, and a lot of fun to do music with.” Query concurs, saying, “She’s such an amazing singer. Her and Dave Rawlings’ harmonies are incredible.”
For Query, who played electric bass for the entirety of The King is Dead – an instrument, he states, that helped him get “into the moment” – his parts can either mirror instrumentation Meloy lays down on his brainstorming demos or arise viscerally from jam session gatherings and visionary discourse. For the album Query feels he took more of an “instinctual approach,” one in which he tried not to over-think and “just kind of go for it, get into the energy of the songs” because, as he offers, they were “easy for me in the sense [that] a lot of the songs demanded really simple bass parts, but parts that come from the tradition I’m really familiar with, like classic rock [and] country. It was fun for me.” He adds, with modesty, that the idea was to serve the songs and not overstate: “Playing bass is really just about not getting in the way. It’s just about making the songs feel right and sound right.”
As for The King is Dead itself, any process of comparison/contrast that occurs has already been anticipated by the band. After all, when something is produced that is as expansive and intricate as the critically-acclaimed The Hazards of Love (a song cycleMojo applauded as “spellbinding” and a “great romantic adventure”), it’s difficult not to mention The King is Dead‘s divergence, which Query describes as “shorter” and “more digestible.” And, according to Query, people are struck by the difference – at least that’s what the band has determined from early reviews.
But the perception of critics and devotees, and whether they compare it or take it as its own entity, is not something he, or his bandmates, can – or should – worry about too much.
Concludes Query, “I feel like we’re at a point where we are getting a lot of attention and we’re been around long enough that people are likely to at least give a listen to a new thing we put out. Some people are gonna love it, some people are gonna hate it.”