The narratively gifted folk-rock outfit gets mixed results on its latest album. Info/tix
After 15 years, Portland, Oregon-based band the Decemberists have tried to do something new. Their last two albums—the mature, Belle & Sebastian-esque What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World and the Americana opus The King Is Dead—were certainly an evolution from their familiar approach to British folk and penchant for storytelling, but not necessarily fearless in the growth they exhibited. With their most recent album, last spring's I'll Be Your Girl, the band shrugs off their signature sound in favor of a more straightforward pop sound and, somewhat bewilderingly, '80s-tinged synths and transistor organs.
The results are not always successful. "Severed" sounds like R.E.M. coupled with some of the less appealing elements of synthpop, and particularly cringe-worthy is the sing-song, saccharine "Everything Is Awful." It's evident, though, that the band undertook this shift in earnest, most evident in their production choices: they ended their longtime relationship with producer Tucker Martine in favor of the decidedly freakier John Congleton, who has worked with Xiu Xiu, St. Vincent, and Swans. The shift could almost be called bold, if it didn't make one wonder why it has taken nearly 20 years for the band to risk a dramatic change in direction.
Not all hallmarks of The Decemberists have evaporated. You can still hear the mark of the '60s British folk revival on I'll Be Your Girl, and many of the songs' lyrics are still driven by narrative and imagery reminiscent of fables and sea shanties. "Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes," the penultimate track, spins a cautionary tale based on an old Slavic parable that could be an outtake from 2002's Castaways And Cutouts or 2003's Her Majesty: "Beware the wild rushes, my mother told me / That grow on the bank side along the salt sea / But I being young, I heeded her none / So to the wild rushes the wind carried me," leader Colin Meloy trills.
Meloy's voice is impressively unchanged here—still powerful, albeit slightly mewling and more than a little reminiscent of Jeff Mangum—and it's clear that the band as a whole is still tight. The high-energy, almost ecstatic performances that they're known for, along with an opening set from compelling folk duo Kacy & Clayton (think Fairport Convention meets Angel Olsen), may make it worth the trek down to the still-new Sylvee for this one. —Katie Hutchinson