Try Not to Try
The Decemberists Scale Back

Apologies in advance – this is going to be a quick one. I’m neck-deep into getting my site ready for launch next week, and the sheer amount of busy work involved isn’t leaving a lot of time for anything else. I’m starting to feel a little more on top of things, but I’m really only giving myself a couple of hours to write this before heading back to work. This’ll be good news for those of you who think I’m too long-winded, though.

It’s appropriate that this column will be kind of short and slight, because the album I want to discuss is both of those things. And yet, I’ve started to like it quite a bit. I’m talking about The King is Dead, the sixth album from Portland, Oregon’s The Decemberists. In fact, this is such a small, lightweight effort that I almost feel funny calling it what it is: the first major release of 2011.

It’s also the follow-up to my favorite album of 2009, The Hazards of Love. The culmination of years of ambitious folk-prog explorations, Hazards is an hour-long suite, a dark fairly tale told in one continuous burst. The band performed it live exactly as it appeared on record, the whole twisty hour. It’s a cerebral, difficult, insanely ambitious work, rooted equally in centuries-old folk music and Jethro Tull-style theatrics, and it must have been exhausting to put together.

So it’s no surprise that the band has scaled back for the follow-up, but even I didn’t expect them to go this far. The King is Dead is 40 minutes of the simplest, breeziest music Colin Meloy has ever written. Even the earliest Decemberists albums had a hint of the epic about them, songs taking on the feel of ancient ballads and seafaring sagas. But not here. Here we have 10 little folk tunes, some with harder edges, some that just twinkle along prettily. It is completely devoid of ambition – this is an album that simply wants to be liked.

And ironically, that’s why it’s been so hard for me to like it. Meloy’s voice remains arresting and unique, but here that voice is gracing songs that its owner could knock out in a weekend. If you’ve heard the single, “Down By the Water,” you’ve heard perhaps the most complex and driving tune on the album. For most of this effort, the Decemberists are content merely to be pretty – see “Rise to Me,” a country-ish ballad that floats along on a gentle wind, or “Rox in the Box,” a folksy shuffle with a complacent chorus.

None of these songs grab you by the lapels and force you to listen, the way Hazards or The Crane Wife did. But there’s something of a joyous freedom to this album, even in its saddest moments, like the sweet “January Hymn.” It’s almost like Meloy is happy to be free of the weight of what the Decemberists have been – scholarly, verbose, thoughtful. Here he just delights in spinning out simple tales, tiny songs with succinct messages. Opener “Don’t Carry It All” is perhaps the most obvious example, since it’s literally about dropping a burden: “Let the yoke fall from our shoulders, don’t carry it all, don’t carry it all…” You can hear in Meloy’s voice just how glad he is to follow his own advice.

The King is Dead also offers Meloy and company the chance to jam with some genuine icons. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck plays guitar on three tracks, adding to this album’s IRS Records-era feel – if you can’t spot his playing on “Calamity Song,” you don’t know your early R.E.M. – and Gillian Welch graces seven songs with her amazing voice. The album doesn’t exactly have a party feel, and it’s in no way ramshackle, but I can see Meloy calling up his famous friends and putting the whole thing down on tape in a couple of days. It’s that kind of record.

And is that a bad thing? I don’t know. I certainly have a taste for the epic. Hazards soared to the top of my list nearly on ambition alone, and my favorite album of last year (The Age of Adz, by Sufjan Stevens) contains a 25-minute-long song. Simplicity usually just passes me by, even elegant simplicity. So it’s been a struggle for me to appreciate what’s here without lamenting what’s missing. The last couple of songs (the dusky “This is Why We Fight” and the sad, lovely “Dear Avery”) go a long way toward earning my love. But I can’t help thinking that The King is Dead just isn’t trying very hard.

And yet… and yet. I’ve found myself smiling uncontrollably when I press play on “Don’t Carry It All” lately, and the gentle beauty of these songs is beginning to reveal itself. Ordinarily, if an album takes several listens to sink in, it’s because it’s too complex to grasp in one go. This is the exact opposite, an album too easy, too lightweight to stick. But the uncomplicated directness of songs like “January Hymn” has started to resonate.

This may not be what you want in a Decemberists album. It’s certainly not what I wanted, after The Hazards of Love. But it’s clearly what the band needed – a break from their own myth. I expect, years from now, that The King is Dead will be seen as a quick pitstop between destinations, a layover while they decide where to fly next. But even so, there’s gold in them thar hills, if you’re willing to let it reveal itself. I like this album for its winsome qualities, its simple smile, its willingness just to be liked for being itself. The King is Dead is not a great album, but it’s a sweet one, the sound of a grandiose, theatrical band figuring out how to just be. It’ll make you smile back.

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A couple of quick takes:

Dr. Tony Shore really likes White Lies. He’s the reason I listen, to be honest, since the Joy Division-style mope-pop of their debut To Lose My Life didn’t grab me much at all. But second album Ritual is a definite improvement. Buoyed by sweeping single “Bigger Than Us,” the album adds a depth to the band’s synth-heavy sound, and manages to outdo similar bands, like Interpol. In places, this record sounds like Julian Cope’s Krautrock work, and in many others, you can hear the ghost of Ian Curtis knocking. There’s nothing original here, but if this is a sound you like, White Lies have turned in maybe the best pastiche of it I’ve ever heard.

And here’s one from the Portland, Maine files. Spencer Albee, until recently the keyboard player with the great Rustic Overtones, has a new project. It’s called Space vs. Speed, and it’s pretty much awesome.

This thing struts out of the gate immediately with “Tea and Cocaine,” a robotic rocker with a Stone Temple Pilots-esque chorus, which is nothing when compared with the monster hook of second track “Set It Off.” (Seriously, if there’s a better “na-na-na” this year, I’ll be surprised and elated.) Albee’s synths are the bedrock of this record, but Lost on Liftoff guitarist Walt Craven adds some edge. Best of all, these songs are terrific, even in the slower, slightly proggier second half. Seriously, check this out at It’s great stuff.

Next week, the new releases keep on rolling out, with Iron and Wine and Corinne Bailey Rae. Apologies again for the short column. Back to work…

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See you in line Tuesday morning.