This Week in Music: The Decemberists Go Country-Folk; Smith Westerns Dye It Blond
SOURCE: Capitol Records
The Decemberists - The King Is Dead (B+)
Expectation is sometimes a terrible thing. After the overstuffed, overblown, overwrought (both lyrically and emotionally) and in-all-ways wonderful Hazards of Love, This King is Dead is hard to take on its own terms. Before this record, the things that I would say I loved about the Decemberists were the English-style story songs, the full-throated folk, the prog-rock/chamber-pop mash-up, and the Portland feel of the band. The only one of those things The King is Dead has is the full-throated folk, and I was initially disappointed when I encountered this small collection of country-folk songs filled with pastoral modesty.
But and so I should have heeded front-man Colin Meloy's lyric in the opening track, "Here we come to a turning of the season," or even better "Let the yolk fall from our shoulders / Don't Carry it all, don't carry it all." This is a different type of Decemberists record from the ones they've been putting out since their big-time breakout, Picaresque. When heard for what it is rather than what we (or, rather, I) want/expect it to be, it’s a pretty good one.
The album’s country-folk feel provides an interesting juxtaposition to other indie-country/alt-country/country-folk albums of the past year: It's cleaner and more mannered than the Avett Brothers, more wistful than the Jamey Johnson, and pop-ier and more hook-laden than the Justin Townes Earl. From the opening harmonica wail, Meloy and crew wear their country influences on their sleeve; before they left them in the background. Steel guitars, banjos, fiddles, and other instruments are added to the band's arsenal, and guest stars bring their country-folk expertise. Gillian Welch, who's Time (The Revelator) is probably my favorite country album, adds her beautiful voice to the majority of the album. The Decemberists have done a few duets in the past, but the ones on this album are stand-outs—rich, emotive tracks with the vocals taking center stage.
And while the album belongs to a different genre than their previous releases, it's still noticeably a Decemberists album; from Meloy's allusive lyrics (which include a reference to my favorite author, David Foster Wallace, in the apocalyptic "Calamity") to the folky keyboard work, to the consistent aesthetic. The Decemberists have always been an album- rather than single-oriented band, and while this album may not be myth-focused like their last two, it still has a coherent sound and feel. There’s not a dud song in the bunch, either, and a few of the best tracks, like “Rise to Me” and “June Hymn” (the guitar part of which is reminiscent of “Red Right Ankle,” one of my favorite songs), would stand up to their best work. The album is both a good Decemberists album and a good country/folk album—a notable feat.
That said, the problem of expectation still looms for me. Despite Meloy’s request, what he’s carrying and has carried affects how I encounter and hear the album. It’s not the Decemberists’ most compelling work, in terms of poetry, story-telling, melody, song-craft, or on a number of other fronts. That may be because I find most of their catalog to reach dizzying heights in these areas, but it reduces this album for me from great to very good. If it were released by a band I hadn’t heard of, I would be lavishing praise on it with reckless abandon, but because it’s the Decemberists, the praise comes with qualification. It lacks a great track showing off Chris Funk’s guitar work, a heart-breaking or spine-chilling story-song, genre-bending, and a number of other things I’ve come to rely on the band for. At this point, whether or not I should judge the album solely on its own terms, I can’t help but hear it as a Decemberists album. And it’s worthwhile, but not their best.
SOURCE: Fat Possum Records
Smith Westerns – Dye It Blond (A-)
The Smith Westerns self-titled debut, recorded at home and released in 2009, was a blast. The band members were all still in high school when they recorded it, and its burst of lo-fi exuberance was as exciting for what it foreshadowed as for what it was.
Now that the band has released an album with all the benefits of professional production and equipment, their debut seems modest by comparison. From the very first track, the album grabs you with its energy, its pop hooks, its skuzzy aural aesthetic, its retro feel. These guys have cribbed from greats like the Beatles, T-Rex, David Bowie, and Velvet Underground, yet they still have their own sound. It’s not surprising that they’re currently on tour with Girls, whose sound similarly evokes both past and present without sounding stolen or tired.
The songs on this album will likely be mainstays on college mix-tapes this year, catchy and swaggering and fun and beautiful without exception. “Weekend,” “Imagine Pt. 3,” “All Die Young,” and “Smile” are all radio-worthy (and, perhaps by extension, commercial-worthy) singles. “Weekend” has been getting buzz since it was released as a single in November, and it had the potential to be one of those lead tracks that overshadows the rest of the album with its joyfully intoxicated feel, but it turns out to be an excellent opening track that is an exemplary example of what’s to come. “All Die Young” is more fun than a track with that title has any right to be, and serves as a great mid-album high-point, like the clean-up batter in a batting-order, to paraphrase NPR’s Bob Boilen. And “Smile” has the best guitar solo of 1967 released in 2010, without seeming out of place or like kids wearing their parents clothing.
The Smith Westerns sound is soaked in the psychedelia of laid-back youth, aided by production that layers distorted, slight reverb on to the guitars and drums to supplement the pop-vocal that is lazy without being sloppy. The sound and style of play is complemented perfectly by the production, which adds a depth and richness to the sound without scrubbing away the aesthetic of the band’s earlier lo-fi recordings. I look forward to an essay on “hi-fi lo-fi” soon on Pitchfork.
And in the same way the burden of expectation ultimately saddled the latest Decemberists album with more than it could bare (or, in all fairness, it should have had to face) the Smith Westerns’ latest benefits from this sort of expectation. The album is ambitious on any scale, but especially when released by an emerging band of 18-20 year olds. It’s exciting in the way that Vampire Weekend’s debut was exciting: It’s as much about what’s here as what’s hinted for the future of these shockingly young artists.
All in all, the album is great, both judged on its own and as a breakout from a young band. I look forward to their next one, and this will certainly tide me over in the mean time.
Other notable releases from this week:
M.I.A.’s Vicki Leakx mixtape, available for free here.
Bath’s-side-project Geotic’s new album, available for free here.
Sam Menefee-Libey is the LGBTQ Advocate with Campus Progress.