Review: The King is Dead by The Decemberists

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Rating: 8.5/10

Time for an admission: I’ve only really listened to The Hazards of Love (the previous Decemberists record) once.  By that I mean once through, which is ultimately the only correct way to hear the sprawling rock opera.  But it’s exhausting.  The songs are dense, the storyline overwhelming, and the music not immediately welcoming.  I was disappointed, especially considering the high praise I’ve had for the band in the past.

But that all changes with The King is Dead.  Suddenly the Decemberists are accessible again, and it’s thanks to a real change in musical attitude.

Full review after the break:

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Here is the second-to-last part of my decade list.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.  It’s really tough to put some of these in order.  So that pretty much means that albums 10-1 are all crazy good, and I think you should hear them at least once.

Come back tomorrow for the finale…

10. Picaresque by The Decemberists (2005)


I am a total sucker for the theatrics of The Decemberists.  But Picaresque rises above the rest of their catalogue by offering wondrous detail, both verbal and musical.  The album never becomes unwieldy and is very charming.  Each track is full of lyrical wit and real emotion.  “Eli, The Barrow Boy” is painfully sad.  “The Engine Driver” pulls you into the loss and rejection of the titular character.  Yes, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is huge and crazy, but it’s also a powerful piece.  Nerdy?  Yes.  Brilliant?  Undeniably.

9. The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me by Brand New (2006)


Having now heard their follow-up album (Daisy), it’s a bit disappointing to see Brand New stop their evolution here.  Brand New were an average snotty, crappy punk band that followed in the mold of Blink 182.  Forgettable radio fodder.  But then something magical happened: they decided to become artists.  The process was took two albums (leaving Deja Entendu as a nice straightforward punk album), but the result was fantastic.

Here there were textured sounds.  You could actually understand the band’s dynamics.  The songs had a hint of artsy production.  They even managed to pull some Modest Mouse stuff.  It was all brilliant, leaving a refreshing feeling and some faith in punk rock.  Even the simplest of songs were packed with mature themes and strong musicianship.  These guys need not be associated with that Jude Law song any longer.  This is a real statement.

8. Illinois by Sufjan Stevens (2005)


Ambitious hardly begins to describe this album.  Contained within the now-defunct 50 States project are two records.  Seemingly, it would be pretty difficult to contain the spirit of a state in one disk.  But after doing so well with Michigan, Stevens completely eclipsed his own effort in the sprawling and stunning Illinois.

22 songs, and over an hour of playtime sound pretty daunting.  But when you realize that a few of them are mini-songs designed for album flow, the remaining stuff sounds even more overwhelming.  But Stevens has an amazing gift at hook development.  It starts from the first notes: you want to hear where those pianos will go in “Concerning the UFO.”  Soon you’re left wondering where “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” will go in its two parts.  Eventually you realize that you’re halfway through and still can’t wait to see what will come next.  Insanely classy and certainly brilliant, this is a wonderful epic.

7. Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes (2008)


Okay I lied.  Back when I called this the best album of 2008, I also said something bold about this becoming the greatest album of the decade.  As you can plainly see, 7 is not the same as 1.  Why the change?  Well, I’ve had more time to consider the album and those I’ve placed ahead of it.

Fleet Foxes is a splendid album, still full of the gorgeous things that make me smile in its style of music.  Stunning singers are still the highlight, and it carries the whole album.  But has this recorded lessened in any way?  Almost.  Too much familiarity lessens some of the impact.  Thus, to keep this ageless wonder ageless, it’s best to not over-saturate.  However, when used appropriately, Fleet Foxes is still amongst the best of the decade.

6. Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear (2009)


My love for Grizzly Bear started as I listened to them before they opened a Radiohead show.  After that show, it was clear that I needed to pay attention to Grizzly Bear’s next album.  Then came the leak.  I was worried about hearing it, but was so painfully curious.  I heard, and was pleased but understood the audio quality as a barrier to excellence.

Oh boy was that quite the barrier.  Veckatimest is superb, offering gorgeous little details.  And really, this is all about the beautiful details.  It’s clear that this album was painstakingly crafted by four excellent musicians.  Every song has moments of pure brilliance and the whole album shimmers with production quality.  After such a great run in only a brief existence, I really look forward to the next release from Grizzly Bear.  It’s obvious they are great quality control experts.  But while I wait, I will have Veckatimest to keep me happy.

5. Funeral by Arcade Fire (2004)


This was a game-changer for me.  I hadn’t quite realized the broad potential of indie rock, but I was getting there.  And then in the summer of 2007, I finally got my hands on this disk.  Late to the party, sure, but very interested.  I was blown away from the first moment.  The near-sobs of Win Butler’s vocals were stunning.  The fearless sincerity was unnerving.

People sometimes insult or marginalize Arcade Fire for being so loud.  I think that’s a mistake.  Loudness and bold statements do not necessarily lessen music.  When used as a tool for communication, loudness is a powerful resource for Arcade Fire.  They fill out the room like U2, but have the grip of Neutral Milk Hotel.  But for me, none of that matters without “Rebellion (Lies).”  That song is the keystone of Funeral.  In my mind, it all builds to resolve in “Rebellion.”  That progression and development is amazing and makes Funeral so good.

4. In Rainbows by Radiohead (2007)


It feels strange ranking In Rainbows ahead of Kid A.  But for me, it’s so easy.  While I have to be ready to hear Kid A, this album can come on at any point and make me happy.  That’s one big difference: the joy involved.  Yes, songs like “Nude” and “All I Need” tug at the heartstrings.  But it’s the feeling of the whole album.  Freedom and warmth abound.

Forget about the pricing thing.  It was cool at first, but does not make this the best Radiohead album this decade.  Instead, the songs make this the best album of Radiohead’s decade.  Each one has personality, power.  They’re all made by a full band, offering insight into their powerful musicianship.  But really, it’s personal affection that gets me to place In Rainbows so high.  I love this album for all that it offers and it is in constant rotation in my music.  These 10 songs are phenomenal.



Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to my look at the best of this decade.  It has been an amazing time for music, and thanks to that vehicle that is the internet, we can actually witness a great deal of the music around us.  It is actually a lot of fun to be able to look back like this and see what has been so good.

Keep in mind: I am one person.  There is no way that I’ve heard everything possible from this decade, so what follows is a personal list of favorites.  Feel free to leave comments: what do you think I’m missing from this list?

Please note my self-imposed rule for this list: ONLY ONE SONG PER ARTIST.  This is done in the interest of expanding the selection.  Otherwise, this might be a Spoon, Radiohead, and Modest Mouse love-fest.

So without further ado, here starts the list.

50. “Jesus, Etc.” by Wilco

This unexpected song centers around strings and a humming keyboard.  But its soul is instant and powerful.

49. “The Rip” by Portishead

Sad, raw and very reserved.  The combination of held-back drums and straining vocals is unforgettable.

48. “Paper Planes” by M.I.A.

This song was literally everywhere, but with good reason.  Insanely catchy and it even holds a message.

47. “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” by Of Montreal

An artifact of its source album, this rundown of mental trouble works well even outside the original setting.

46. “Touch the Sky” by Kanye West (feat. Lupe Fiasco)

It’s the horns!  As soon as the song kicks in, you don’t have a choice – you listen.

45. “Keep Fishin’” by Weezer

Most of post-2000 Weezer has been dreadful. Maladroit is the exception, and this song is a classic.

44. “The Wolf is Loose” by Mastodon

In a word, blistering.  From that opening drum attack, it doesn’t let up.  Metal at its finest.

43. “The Zookeeper’s Boy” by Mew

The startup riles the mind, but then they disarm you with that magical voice.

42. “Melody Day” by Caribou

That guitar holds you tight to the song, but the ethereal vocals make it stick in your mind.

41. “Knights of Cydonia” by Muse

In general, Muse is overwhelming and a tad annoying.  Here, they’re just too big to ignore.  Very fun song.

40. “This Tornado Loves You” by Neko Case

Her voice is big, but this song captures her excellence. Great, light music and a slightly over-the-top metaphor make this a late-decade great.

39. “1 2 3 4” by Fiest

Yes, the iPod commercials were popular.  But the song is so much better than just an ad.  The melody, catchy vocals and a slightly painful tale of teenage love all add up to a full composition, worthy of repeated listens.

38. “We’ll Make a Love Of You” by Les Savy Fav

The band may be known for their crazy stage antics, but this song proves them a worthy rock band in general.  Interesting lyrics and singing are mainly a way to get those brilliant guitars in.  The echo is there like U2, but it is so much more muscular.

37. “PDA” by Interpol

Dark and brooding, the lyrics are plainly idiotic, and the voice seems out to copy Joy Division.  But you know what: the song is still great.  The dark is excellent, thanks to a beefy bass and tight drums.  Of course, the whole thing just turns amazing through that final breakdown.  The drums go, the guitars lock in and then it all comes back.  Brilliant every time.

36. “Atlas” by Battles

Huge.  Epic.  Massive.  Yeah, very redundant, but it’s hard to pound in just how big this song is.  Structurally, everything is very simple.  Big drum beat, some bass and guitars following behind.  But the crazy vocals and just the scope of the operation make this worth hearing.

35. “23” by Blonde Redhead

Washed out, Sonic Youth-type sounds aren’t anything new.  But when you play it this well and have a cooing siren as your lead singer, you tend to garner a bit of attention.  I really love the drum pattern that carries throughout this track, and it helps drive this manic, swirling track right into your brain.

34. “Living Well is the Best Revenge” by REM

This is an amazing way to make an entrance.  Even more so when it heralds a return to form like this.  After a few albums of mindless wandering, REM snap right into place with this searing song, lashing your ears with big guitars and angry lyrics.  Bonus points: that entrance lick makes a great ringtone.

33. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie

This song can seem cheesy, but I love it anyway.  It really hit for me during a Scrubs episode.  The kind of deep affection and real sadness seen here are difficult to describe without sounding pathetic.  Here, the sparse arrangement and the light vocals manage to tackle the subject without fear.

32. “Kissing the Lipless” by The Shins

Decidedly poppy, yet deceptively complex.  “Kissing the Lipless” really shifts into a different place when it transitions to a faster song through those guitar attacks.  The song is very refined, but still manages to feel raw and realistic through the strained singing.

31. “My Girls” by Animal Collective

Pitchfork has vastly overrated this song.  However, it is still worth hearing.  Strong emotions and personal convictions drive this track.  Personal reflection should probably result in all people having the hopes and dreams of Animal Collective in “My Girls”.

30. “Smile” by Lily Allen

Swanky and deliciously pop, this song is too catchy to be left off any decade list.  But the whole thing gets turned over immediately when Allen complains about her man “f***ing that girl next door.”  Very spiteful, but self-serving in how his guilt brings the singer joy.  Personal redemption can be awesome.

29. “2080” by Yeasayer

I’m not very familiar with the rest of Yeasayer, so I don’t know if this is a very representative song.  But if so, they must be astronauts, making brilliant space music.  The whole thing seems out of this world, and cements its place through both the chorus and the children shouting at the end.

28. “Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio know how to make a song.  First, they pull you in with a cool drum pattern.  Then, they keep you interested with the guitars and insane production.  Just as you grow “bored,” they slow things down, let you feel it out.  And then before that goes on for too long, they kick up the speed to a new high and ride it out.  Nicely done.

27. “Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens

Religion and cancer are not often encountered in popular music.  Yet here we find a quiet, caring man examining his own faith and reflecting on the death of a loved one.  In the midst of the sprawling Illinoise, it is interesting to find this charmingly sad song, featuring acoustic guitars and a restrained banjo.  Sonically beautiful, and mentally stimulating.

26. “Use It” by The New Pornographers

I’m never really sure what The New Pornographers are ever singing about.  But, here they are anyway.  The strength of their lovely singing, bold poppy hooks and great variety of songs keeps me coming back.  “Use It” is no different – strong singers and a memorable piano are enough to make this song rise so high.

25. “Auto Rock” by Mogwai

Ah, the slow build.  This song is different than all others in the list so far, in that it features no vocals.  Instead, a haunting piano line slowly grows louder.  More sounds are added, a quiet electronic blip.  Then the wall of guitar sound comes in off the horizon, this also building.  It’s a very inspirational song to me, leaving a feeling of rising out of the ashes.  By the end, it’s fist-pumping good and you feel ready for battle.

24. “Millstone” by Brand New

Dear crappy punk rock: please take notes.  After being a mediocre punk rock band, Brand New decided to grow up and write meaningful songs with interesting music.  “Millstone” is a stunning song coming from a band that wrote “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad.”  There are layers of sound, slow nuance, and lyrics that comment on personal failure in an intelligent way.  This is a real evolution in music: Brand New are now a spectacular, respectable group of artist.

23. “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand

It is all about that transition.  Yeah, the start and the finish are both wonderful, but holy god.  That moment around 55 seconds in is just magical.  The guitars go tight, the drums get all wonky and the song is never the same.  They never try repeat this stunning change at any point in their career (thus far), so you really must enjoy the moment.  It is the point where indie garage rock and disco meet and it’s fantastic.  Yeah, you’ve heard this song a million times now, but it is really good enough to carry a whole album.

22. “Sixteen Military Wives” by The Decemberists

The apex of all Decemberists songs.  Perhaps this is more surprising in that it is so different than anything else off of Picaresque.  Whatever the case, the song is brilliant and scathing in its poppy abandon.  A discourse on what is wrong with America, this track also manages to pull together an amazing horn group.  And yet again, the little moments really win big points.  Here, it’s the way the song finishes off, bringing the horn line back around for one last flourish.  Perfect ending.

21. “Fell in Love With a Girl” by The White Stripes

I wish more garage rock sounded like this.  Very fast, relentless in its thrash, “Fell in Love With a Girl” is such rush.  Yes, we’ve all heard the crap about Meg’s drumming, but it is actually very fitting here.  You only need a simplistic drum figure for Jack White to dance around.  Tip: turn this up really really loud in your car, open all the windows and sing along.  Bonus points if it’s winter.  Afterward, try to tell me that this song is not awesome.

BEST ALBUMS OF 2009: 15-6

Welcome to my rundown of the best albums of the year.  I take a look at what I found to be my favorite releases.  I’ve reviewed some of these, but haven’t mentioned most of them here.  Keep in mind that the previous scores really don’t mean anything – just because a score was “higher” in the past doesn’t mean that my opinion is quite the same today.  Enjoy the list!

15. 11:11 by Rodrigo y Gabriela

Starting this list with a unexpected twist.  I first ran into this duo on Conan earlier this year and I was totally stunned.  With two acoustic guitars, they completely dominated about four minutes of my life.  Literally, the way they managed to play those instruments was breathtaking and enthralling.  While you can’t watch these magic musicians on album, it remains clear that they’re both up to something crazy on each song of the album.  Get this album and find some of the top guitar players out there today.

14. Wavering Radiant by Isis

I am not the world’s biggest metal fan.  Particularly, I don’t really see much use for the whole screaming thing.  And yet here is a melodic metal album on this list.  Thus is the excellence of this atmospheric and layered release.  It is a great album especially with headphones on, just to rock out and get washed away by the sound.  I’d suggest a similar approach – go somewhere solitary and soak in all the glorious sounds.  It’s a fun time.

13. Them Crooked Vultures by Them Crooked Vultures

Upon hearing about this supergroup, I was very excited.  I mean, how could they go wrong?  Well, they ultimately didn’t disappoint me.  Admittedly, this album is pretty near what I expected, but is that a bad thing here?  The album does tend to be a bit front-heavy, but this is really something that current radio-popular hard rock outfits should be forced into hearing.  Essentially this conversation needs to happen: “Nickelback, you’ve spent so long copying your own filth.  Why not listen to a musically astute group of people creating better music than you could even dream of?  If you copy even half of this, you’d be listenable!”

12. The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists

Not but a few weeks ago I thought very little of this album.  Then I gave it a harder try, and the whole thing opened up for me.  This is a really difficult listen, but if you properly invest some time into things, you’ll find a wealth of sounds coming forward.  What effect does the concept-album plot have on the quality of things?  That’s hard to say.  I’m not big on concept albums, so it really didn’t mean too much to me.  However, if you like a lengthy musical tale, this is right up your alley.

11. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

An interesting blend of pop-mentality and sludge Sonic Youth/MBV guitar (but sometimes REM-type jangle!) makes this a strange type of music to initially consider.  But with repeated listens comes a satisfaction.  The band doesn’t overstay their welcome, and all the songs are at least slightly danceable.  I’ve never bought into the hype for Isn’t Anything from MBV, but I’d like to think that this can function like a more accessible alternative.

10. Blue Roses by Blue Roses


Deep emotions are sometimes hard to convey in a legitimate way through music.  Often, such efforts sound half-assed, or just plain whiney (see also: emo).  Here, Blue Roses moves beyond any failure by offering sincerity and heart.  This is driven home by the straining, beautiful voice of Laura Groves.  She perfectly brings forth such sorrow on this album.  Perhaps the only warning that should be offered is that repeated listens tend to cause personal depression.  It can be tough to help bear her sadness… but you’ll be left hooked by the enchanting music.

9. Tonight by Franz Ferdinand


Franz Ferdinand take a decidedly darker route here, leaving the “Dark of the Matinee” to seem like a sunny day in July.  The trick is that bigger bass sound.  Yeah, the electronics are something new, but that fat bass really adds a depth to every song.  What brings this album high on my list is its cohesiveness as a whole albumTonight manages to act like a faux-concept album, looking at different facets of a night out.  But they never hit you over the head with such high-mind ideas.  Instead, you’re left to piece it together, and eventually it clicks.  This thing may not be as hooky and fun as their first, but Tonight is a richly rewarding album, even strong enough to overcome the slight misstep in the new version of “Lucid Dreams.”

8. Middle Cyclone by Neko Case


The hook is her voice, but you’ll be left thinking about everything else once done with the album.  It’s almost unfortunate that Case will almost be taken for granted like that.  Because it’s really the blend of music and vocals that really pushes Middle Cyclone so far.  Without that booming voice, the pop-folk would seem interesting but boring.  Yet Case would seem crazy and hyper-emotional without the stunning backdrop offered by great acoustic guitars, piano, strings, and a solid rhythm section.  Maybe the best blend of the two realms is seen in “Vengeance is Sleeping,” an angry sort of remembrance of a lost love.  Without her, the song would be flat, but without the guitars her voice would seem somewhat silly.  Thank goodness the combinations work well throughout – Middle Cyclone is superb for everyone involved, especially the listener.

7. Farm by Dinosaur Jr


It rocks and rolls from the very start.  Insane solos, strong rhythms, and a great sense of melody all propel this guitar album to such a high spot.  I really wish I was a Dinosaur Jr follower before this.  Every track has a loveable gritty work ethic that works in tandem with the band’s clear talent.  While “Pieces” may be the best single track, each song has a memorable guitar line, and interesting lyrics.  Farm keeps you interested throughout, thus giving a great bang for the buck.

6. It’s Blitz! by Yeah Yeah Yeahs


I was not convinced that Yeah Yeah Yeahs would be able to translate their shtick into some sort of electronic-disco setting.  Yet here I am, wondering how I didn’t see Karen O as a super-diva before.  It isn’t immediately clear that you’re into something great – “Zero” is spectacular, but can put you a bit out of sorts.  “Heads Will Roll” convinces you that the powerful Karen O is still around and then gets you to believe the electronics.  From here on, the album leads you through a series of power songs and semi-ballads.  You’re always left wondering how a song will conclude, making for a fun first listen.  After that, the whole album solidifies.  It’s Blitz may now be the best of the YYYs.

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of the Best of 2009 stuff.  Fun story: Merriweather Post Pavilion did not make my top 15 list.  It seems pretty clear to me that Pitchfork and many others vastly over-valued Animal Collective this year.  Despite having two brilliant tunes, it does not make my list.  What will be featured in the top 5?

Song Roundup 7: Revisiting Old Friends

A few weeks is quite a long time in modern musical terms.  In that time span, countless albums will have surfaced (legally or otherwise) and artists will be shifting and working to get your attention.  The internet is rather to blame.

When I ignore a song for months this is like an eon.  Music can go away so quickly, forgotten in favor of the “next best thing.”  I’m glad to say I occasionally go through my collection on random or on Genius from iTunes (a lovely feature) to see how it all comes together.  Here are a few songs I’m glad to be hearing again.

Losing My Edge” by LCD Soundsystem

I hold a deep respect for what LCD Soundsystem does.  They manage to bring dance music into my life without letting me realize such an intrusion.  The dance-as-rock idea has shown up through the guise of semi-disco before, but I don’t think anybody executes the trick as well as this band.

The best trick in thrown out in this song is the drumming.  About a third of the way through, the drums just explode with crashing cymbals, but only briefly.  The bass carries on with this heavier tone, but you’re left wanting more, like the Dance Police caught you in banging your head in some rock show.

LCD Soundsystem rewards your patience by bringing the drums back around a few more times, but only after getting you totally hooked on the groove build from that booming bass.  Finally, by the third time through, you can stop anticipating the drums quite as much, and appreciate the great lyrics.

But they’ve still got you by your rock-ears.

The Engine Driver” by The Decemberists

Colin Meloy has a distinctive voice, seemingly built to tell stories.  Here, Meloy carries you through a light melody of false love and regret.  The song really hits you in the refrain, as he becomes a “writer of fictions.”

The description is apt, fitting the band’s act perfectly.  But this gem doesn’t just stand tall through personal observation.  The instrumentation fully supports the melancholy verses by offering introspective guitars, accordions and brilliant backing vocals.

The Decemberists had many great tunes on Picaresque, but this stands one of the most memorable, leaving the listener with a yearning for Meloy’s lost love.  Yes – he brings you into the character.

“Short Fuse Burning” by Less Than Jake

The song bursts right at you and lacks a large number of the lovely horns of most great Less Than Jake songs.  But “Short Fuse Burning” is among my favorite from the band because of the drums.

It’s such a derivative punk song: take a few chords, play it fast, make it short, and talk about some sort of angst.  But it works so well here.

That fast drum part as they sing “So I’m looking tonight / For some peace of mind” just sends the punk fan in me over the edge.  If I had a pogo stick, I’d be bouncing off the walls during that phrase.

Nothing about this song is overly special, but it’s just so immediate that you can’t help but fall for the hooks.  Take a listen to this song and you will also become a fish.  Even without the amazing horns!