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CD review: The Decemberists, 'The King is Dead'

The Decemberists

The King Is Dead

**** (Four out of five stars)

Posted 11:25am on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011

Concise, rustic and (relatively) straightforward -- this is the Decemberists?

For its sixth studio album, the indie-folk quintet dials back the ornate Victorian flapdoodle, downsizes its previously epic song structure and (gasp!) takes a stab at crafting a record that evokes the high country more than a 19th-century drawing room. Coming on the heels of 2009's overstuffed "rock opera" The Hazards of Love, this is a much-needed step back.

Chief songwriter and lead vocalist Colin Meloy cites early R.E.M. as a significant influence on this collection, which clocks in at a lean 40 minutes and is filled with austere songs and glowing acoustic guitar lines.

Indeed, that iconic band's guitarist, Peter Buck, pitches in on the ol' six-string for three songs here; Down by the Water could pass for an outtake from Fables of the Reconstruction. (Pushing the Decemberists even further afield, acclaimed alt-country chanteuse Gillian Welch contributes backing vocals to several cuts.)

The King Is Dead, produced once more by Tucker Martine, is easily one of the prettiest records Meloy and his bandmates have yet crafted.

Although the restrained, accessible style will likely entice many who've dismissed the Decemberists, Meloy has also kept his thesaurus in check this time around. Not that he doesn't indulge in a few rhetorical flights of fancy, but rather, he's mindful of undermining the immediacy of the music. Words feel deliberate, rather than decorative.

What's more difficult to gauge is whether this spareness is just a place holder, something to try on for size, or if Meloy and his collaborators have grown tired of the elaborate sprawl found in so many of their earlier works.

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