Release Date: January 18, 2011
Reviewed by Joseph Novak

The new Decemberists record — The King is dead, out Jan. 18 — is splendid in what the band decided to keep doing and what they’ve seemed to leave behind.

Colin Meloy and crew threw out the conceptual tales of fairies and romps in the forest that made their last album so painful to listen to, while keeping the warm, complex, layered instrumentals that made it almost bearable.

Although Meloy still throws a $5 word in here and there, compared to past works The King is Dead is a remarkably unpretentious return to form for the Decemberists.

The album shows Meloy going back to his roots, weaving his distinctive vocals with canorous guitar, accordion, fiddle and even some guest work on mandolin from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck.

Buck isn’t the only guest artist on the album. Gillian Welch lends her vocals to a large chunk of the tracks, not so much duetting with Meloy as adding some texture to the vocals. Still, it brings a lot, especially to tracks like Down by the Water and sea shanty-inspired Rox in the Box.

It’s still a very warm, vibrant sound, even on more supine tracks like January Hymn. While Meloy sings “On a winters Sunday I go / To clear away the snow / And Green the ground below” the richness of the vocals and backing strings evokes a feeling of sitting in front of a fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate more than bundling up to shovel the walk that he describes.

Although some may feel like the band is pandering after getting such a poor reaction to Hazards of Love, the Decemberists’ latest effort is a nice nod to their earlier work.

Up to this point, it has seemed that every album was building on the previous one, growing more elaborate and complicated, culminating in what many felt was a step too far.

Unlike The Hazards of Love, which at times was an exhausting listen, the quick pace — 10 tracks spanning 40 minutes — and relatively uncomplicated vocals makes The King is Dead reminds one of the Decemberists early albums, for the first time in a while, leaving us wanting more.

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