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Critic's pick: The Decemberists, 'The King Is Dead'

By now, word on The Decemberists' new album, The King Is Dead, is out. One of the first major pop releases of 2011, it became the Portland, Ore., band's first chart-topping hit and remains one of the winter' swiftest sellers.

That seems curious in a way, because The King Is Dead sounds like a distant, deconstructed cousin of singer/songwriter Colin Meloy's past work. But that was almost inevitable after the prog-ish fancy of 2009's The Hazards of Love.

To say The King Is Dead is some sort of return to a simpler sound, though, also misses the mark. Meloy's music has never been simple. In fact, The Hazards of Love simply marked the point at which the complexity of The Decemberists' music caught up with the often impenetrable nature of his story lines.

Instead, The King Is Dead is simply a lighter record. Gone are the massive organ leads and huge percussion grooves that made The Hazards of Love and the preceding The Crane Wife sound less like the work of the indie-pop prodigy that Meloy clearly was on the band's earliest records and more like 1973-era Jethro Tull. Also exiled are the stories of forest witches and bouts of bloodthirsty villainy in the belly of a whale.

The King Is Dead instead presents us with 10 heavily acoustic, heavily countrified songs in the old-fashioned album length of 40 minutes. It's the sound of the wintry Decemberists on a summery holiday.

The single Down by the Water, with guest Gillian Welch's harmony vocals front and center and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck (an Oregonian for years) playing a guitar melody that sounds as if it was yanked straight out of Fall on Me, offered a pre-holidays preview of the album. The song remains the centerpiece of The King Is Dead, soaring with Neil Young-friendly harmonica blasts, modest orchestral doses of accordion and the bold Meloy/Welch harmonies. That Meloy packs the chorus with some dazzling lyrical hooks just points further to a pop prowess that extends beyond The Decemberists' more familiar and epic sound.

The mood then slides into the country reverie All Arise! with its chirpy colors of fiddle, piano and banjo before June Hymn sends The King Is Dead out to into a summer splendor that is as grand thematically as it is musically.

There are shades of The Decemberists of old in the war-themed This Is Why We Fight, which brings on the dark electricity and percussive might of The Hazards of Love near the album's end. But by that point, the lighter Decemberists sound has taken hold. By the time wartime hits, The King Is Dead is celebrating a new musical monarchy. Long live The King, indeed.

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