Photograph by Autumn de Wilde

When considering where to take your career after a hectic prog/folk opera about immortal forest sprites, featuring guest stars with enough indie cred to melt the Pitchfork offices to the ground, you really only have two options: go big or go home. The Decemberists, curiously, chose to go home. After five LPs and nearly a decade of growing steadily weirder, louder, more ambitious and more pretentious, Colin Meloy has taken his band in for reformatting. Despite the imposing title, The King Is Dead contains no eleven-minute song cycles or Roman numerals or subtitles. The Decemberists have been notable for hurtling down that path even after signing with a major label in 2005, but with the new release we suddenly find them back in the comparatively mainstream world of moderately quirky alt-country. It’s jarring, but not unwelcome.

Understandably for a group looking to get back to basics, The King Is Dead sounds exceedingly close to Meloy’s former band Tarkio, a University of Montana project from before Meloy moved to Portland to join the indie gold rush. Harmonica and hints of blues are everywhere, as though this disc fell out of a parallel universe where the Decemberists rode out Neil Young’s slipstream rather than Neutral Milk Hotel’s. What doesn’t sound like Tarkio or Young sounds like Meloy’s other deep influences — ’80s/’90s alternative rock like R.E.M. and Irish folk artists like Shirley Collins — but above all The King Is Dead is soaked in Tarkio’s Montana earnestness.

Some of the band’s surviving pop sensibilities are sacrificed along with the prog oddity, and the album only contains only one real rock song in its lead single ‘Down by the Water’. Meloy’s imaginative word choices also take a heavy hit this time around — I always liked to picture him in another life as a satisfied AP English teacher, fussing with a red pen over exam questions like “charabanc is to balustrade as palanquin is to a) bombazine; b) folderol; c) parapet; d) pantaloon,” but the new lyrics are largely stripped of his trademark vocabulary lessons. The King Is Dead’s more candid attitude does pay off, though. ‘January Hymn’ in particular is one of their strongest ballads so far, sanding down the coarse, conflicted aesthetic of ‘Red Right Ankle’ into something that rings more clearly.

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— , January 10, 2011    4 Comments
Photograph by Autumn de Wilde

Photograph by Autumn de Wilde

Granted, this review isn’t exactly timely arriving five months after the album’s release, but it’s fitting for an album that is the definition of a grower. An hour long rock opera about a pair of star-crossed lovers running afoul of a vengeful forest queen isn’t the easiest concept to sell, but damn it if it hasn’t become one of my favourite albums of the year. From the opening strings of ‘Prelude’ you are compelled to hear the entire story. Colin Meloy takes on several roles, including both the de facto hero William, and the villainous Rake, introduced in ‘The Rake’s Song’, the happiest song I’ve heard about a widower killing his three children.

On Hazards, the Decemberists are joined by Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond voicing Margaret, and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond voicing the Forest Queen. Jim James of My Morning Jacket provides backing vocals throughout the album.

Musically, the album consists of the proggy folk rock made familiar in earlier recordings, in addition to heavy metal influenced material not seen since guitarist Chris Funk challenged Stephen Colbert to a guitar solo competition. These heavier moments combined with Shara Worden’s voice make the Forest Queen a truly striking and imposing presence. While the concept album makes it difficult for songs to stand on their own, The Hazards of Love is an album that compels you to listen from beginning to end. It’s truly greater than the sum of its parts. For while something like ‘The Hazards of Love 3’ loses its effect on its own, in context it’s a haunting melody of revenge sung by a choir of the aforementioned dead children. Likewise, the other interludes and recurring themes really tie this album together.

I often frown upon bands performing nothing but new material on tour, but I was happy to hear the Decemberists have been performing the Hazards of Love in its entirety. Rather than a loose collection of singles, this is a cohesive work best enjoyed as a whole.

The Decemberists – The Rake’s Song
The Decemberists – Won’t Want for Love

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— , September 9, 2009    Comments Off on The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love

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The leaves are turning green, flowers are blooming and if you live in Toronto the smog is slowly starting to settle in; all signs of spring. With the warmer weather and themes of renewal, growth and romance on the horizon, Ca Va Cool presents a seasonally fitting mixtape. Whether you head outdoors for a weekend escape or you find yourself strolling through the park on a lunch break, take a moment to enjoy the following bands that have clearly nailed the spirit of such a lovely season.

Download | The ‘Under a Cherry Blossom’ Mixtape

Fleet Foxes

01 | Fleet Foxes – Sun It Rises

Fleet Foxes are a five-piece group from Seattle with soothing guitars and mesmerizing vocals. ‘Sun It Rises’ is also the opening track on their acclaimed self-titled album released last June. The variety of carefully plucked acoustic arrangements accompanied by Robin Pecknold’s voice have the ability shake the deepest slumber as Fleet Foxes scoff at hibernation. The band is currently on tour and they’ll be making two stops in Canada – Montréal and Toronto on August 3 and 4, respectively.

air_france

02 | Air France – June Evenings

Based in Gothenburg, Sweden, the blissful electronic duo of Henri and Joel produce rhythmic pop music that quickly carries you away. ‘June Evenings’ off their No Way Down EP is analogous to sensory overload from the sounds of birds chirping to imagery of the first rays of sunshine peering through your bedroom curtains. The group is yet to release a full-length album but to their credit, the music they have produced to date is as close as anyone has reached to dream pop perfection. To quote Air France, “Give in, it’s spring”.

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— , May 18, 2009    4 Comments