Review: The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

I was basking in the golden glow of San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall when I first laid eyes on The Decemberists. It was Summer 2004, and it was a day I still remember well. I arrived alone, but I ended up befriending two girls about my age from Sacramento. It was a pretty thing–three kids too young to buy drinks and too engaged to harbor ulterior motives, thrilled to witness a band that seemed to capture every novelty of a world we were only barely old enough to traverse independently. It wasn’t particularly crowded–we walked right up to the front of the stage–but there wasn’t a stranger in the audience. “Billy Liar” was a hall-wide sing-along. On “Red Right Ankle” you could hear a pin drop. Chris Funk dawned a fake beard and marched through the audience pounding a drum strapped to his chest for “A Cautionary Song”. “California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade” was a swaying dream that will resonate in me until the day I die. I wanted to marry those girls by the end of it–both of them, and I never bothered asking their names.

Austin Texas, fall 2006, I stumbled into Stubb’s BBQ in a daze. “Indie rock” had become the musical movement of the decade, and I felt like a king in the middle of it all. It was a crazy two-week stretch: The Album Leaf, The Mountain Goats, a trek out to Houston for Built to Spill, a return to my metal roots for Between the Buried and Me, and somewhere in the midst of it all I found my sleepless self in a sea of humanity as Colin belted “Culling of the Fold” outdoors to a sold-out crowd. He was exhausted but elated, grinning from ear to ear the whole set, and so was I. The irony of “I was Meant for the Stage” was not lost on either of us.

Pittsburgh, 2009, I took my seat at the Byham Theater to witness The Decemberists in a traditional performance hall. I had traded in faded proofs of attendance for garb with actual buttons, and the band was decked out in full suit and tie. The Hazards of Love was larger than life–Shara Worden striding across the stage like a spidery temptress to a majestic display of lights and an unprecedented rock opera. The Decemberists rose to their fame as only they could, and the result was in one breath a self-aware mockery of their grandiose ambitions and a brilliant realization of the same.

…I wrote of The King is Dead‘s simple folk rock sound that it seemed like The Decemberists were “coming down off their own high. I imagine it’s difficult to be as… musically intelligent as they are without some fear of becoming pretentious.” The album title might even hint at this, and the band’s subsequent three year hiatus seemed to confirm it. Now it is 2015, more than a decade since that wonderful night in San Francisco, and What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is due out in just over a week. I don’t really know what I expected, but I know what I was feeling. It certainly wasn’t the grandeur of The Hazards of Love, nor epic ballads reminiscent of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and “The Island”. I was waxing nostalgic on Colin at his sweetest. “Grace Cathedral Hill”, “Shiny”, “Red Right Ankle”, “Of Angels and Angles”… Because The Decemberists were no longer a novel in their own right. That beautiful rise ended with The Hazards of Love, and the hiatus laid it all to rest. Theirs was a tale to look back on fondly; the story had come to an end.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World gives me that sweetness, in a way. Tracks like “Lake Song”, “Make You Better”, and “12/17/12” are absolutely beautiful. All of the songs fall somewhere between these mellow numbers, blues/folk tracks like “Carolina Low” and “Better Not Wake the Baby”, and upbeat pop like “The Wrong Year”, “Cavalry Captain”, and “Philomena”. I could live without the latter three, but suffice to say the album is generally pleasing to listen to, though Jenny Conlee’s accordion has sadly all but left us. “Lake Song”, “Make You Better”, and “12/17/12” definitely steal the show for me, but I won’t soon forget the catchy choruses of “Anti-Summersong” or “Mistral”, nor the lulling blues melancholy of “Till the Water is All Long Gone”.

But this album breaks my heart. Through it all, I can’t escape the feeling that some fell force sucked away Colin’s joie de vivre, substituting mellow content to lead a normal life where once the world had been a playground. The music is still great, but I can’t feel the synergy between it and the lyrics anymore. At least “Lake Song” has been spared this fate. Here is what I can understand of “Mistral”: “So we already wrecked the rental car, and I’ve already lost my way. I feel entombed in this tourist bar, for a day anyway. So lay me out on the cobblestone, and unfurl this aching jib. The streets are built on ancient bones, and the crib of the rib. Won’t a mistral blow it all away? Won’t a mistral blow away? So it’s me and you and the baby boy, and a ? shed away, reeking out a little joy. What a waste. Bad mistakes. Won’t a mistral blow it all away? Won’t a mistral blow away?” I don’t know. It’s just… kind of shallow–a bit of babbling around the surface of a theme–and it’s pervasive through much of the album. “Better Not Wake the Baby” is packed with creative one-liners, all tied by a refrain of “but it better not wake the baby“. What does that mean? Plenty of Decemberists tracks have sent me to Wikipedia in the past, but I’m not going to find an answer here, and for that the song means nothing to me. “12/17/12”, my favorite track, still totally jars me out of my happy daze when Colin appears to rhyme “grieving” with “grieving” and “belly” with “belly”.

Go ahead. Crucify me. Point out the most obvious meanings; remind me that Colin still has a robust vocabulary; explain how it’s none of my business to criticize someone else’s creativity; note that it’s still better than 90% of popular music; tell me to shut my mouth and go listen to something else if I don’t like it. I don’t care, because the sad fact is I will go listen to something else. I spent more time on Castaways and Cutouts than on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World while writing all this. I don’t want that. I want to love this album and hold it dear, but I can’t. I listen to the lyrics and more often than not I just hear Colin going through the motions without any of the magic. From the 5 Songs EP all the way to The Hazards of Love it was a constant indulgence, and now it is gone.

The opening track, “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, is the reason I can still listen with a faint smile. It is not one for the album, but for the memory of all that The Decemberists have meant to me over the years. In almost a parting farewell to Colin’s old stage persona, he sings in classic form: “We know, we know we belong to ya. We know you built your lives around us. Would we change? …We had to change some. We know, we know we belong to ya. We know you threw your arms around us in the hopes we wouldn’t change… But we had to change some, you know, to belong to you.”

And they still do, and I still love them, and I still look forward to catching them on their upcoming tour, but What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is a bittersweet experience.

necromoonyeti’s 10 Favorite Songs of 2011

I want to hop on the bandwagon. It would be a little silly for me to post my real top 10; for one thing, it would include four Krallice tracks. That aside, nearly everything I’d put on it I’ve either posted on this site as a Song of the Day or included in both my review of its album and my top albums post. So to make this a bit different from my past posts, I’m going to limit myself to one song per band, stick to stuff that I imagine might appeal to people who aren’t interested in extreme metal, and keep it on the catchy side. I’ll list a more honest top 10 at the end.

10. Powerwolf – Son of a Wolf (from Blood of the Saints)

As such, my tenth place selection is about as metal as it’s going to get. Powerwolf’s Blood of the Saints might be simple and repetitive, but it’s about the catchiest power/heavy metal album I’ve ever heard. It indulges the same guilty pleasure for me as Lordi and Twisted Sister–two bands that inexplicably pump me up despite being entirely tame. It also offers some amazing operatic vocals and Dracula keyboards, the cheesiness of which can be easily forgiven. Son of a Wolf might be one of the more generic tracks in a sense, but it’s the one most often stuck in my head.

9. Alestorm – Barrett’s Privateers (from Back Through Time)

The only thing I love more than traditional folk and sea chanties is folk punk and metal. When the latter covers the former, I’m in bliss. Alestorm are emerging as the sort of Dropkick Murphys of metal with all their covers lately, and I hope they keep it up. I loved Barrett’s Privateers before what you’re hearing ever happened, and the metal version delights me to no end.

8. The Decemberists – Rox in the Box (from The King is Dead)

The Decemberists really toned it down this year. Where The Hazards of Love could be described as an epic rock opera, The King is Dead sticks to simple, pleasant folk. But Colin Meloy thoroughly researches pretty much every subject he’s ever tackled, and The King is Dead pays ample homage to its predecessors. Rox in the Box incorporates Irish traditional song Raggle Taggle Gypsy with delightful success.

7. Nekrogoblikon – Goblin Box (from Stench)

With a keen eye towards contemporary folk metal like Alestorm and Finntroll, melodic death classics like In Flames and Children of Bodom, and much else besides, former gimmick band Nekrogoblikon really forged their own unique sound in the world of folk metal in 2011. At least half of the album is this good. Stench is the most unexpected surprise the year had to offer by far.

6. Korpiklaani – Surma (from Ukon Wacka)

Korpiklaani almost always end their albums with something special, and 2011 is no exception. The melody of Surma is beautiful, and Jonne Järvelä’s metal take on traditional Finnish vocals is as entertaining as ever.

5. Turisas – Hunting Pirates (from Stand Up and Fight)

I couldn’t find a youtube video that effectively captured the full scope of Turisas’s sound in such limited bitrates, but believe me, it’s huge. Go buy the album and find out for yourselves. Unlike Varangian Way, not every track is this good, but on a select number Turisas appear in their finest form. Adventurous, exciting, epic beyond compare, this band delivers with all of the high definition special effects of a Hollywood blockbuster.

4. The Flight of Sleipnir – Transcendence (from Essence of Nine)

Essence of Nine kicks off with a kaleidoscope of everything that makes stoner metal great, while reaching beyond the genre to incorporate folk and Akerfeldt-esque vocals. A beautifully constructed song, it crushes you even as it floats through the sky. I could imagine Tony Iommi himself rocking out to this one.

3. Boris – Black Original (from New Album)

From crust punk to black metal, there’s nothing Boris don’t do well, and 2011 has shown more than ever that there’s no style they’ll hesitate from dominating. I don’t know what’s been going on in the past few years with this popular rise of 80s sounds and weird electronics. I don’t listen to it, so I can’t relate. But if I expected it sounded anything nearly as good as what Boris pulled off this year I’d be all over it.

2. Tom Waits – Chicago (from Bad as Me)

Bad as Me kicks off with one of my favorite Tom Waits songs to date. It’s a timeless theme for him, but it feels more appropriate now than ever, and his dirty blues perfectly capture the sort of fear and excitement of packing up and seeking out a better life.

1. Dropkick Murphys – Take ‘Em Down (from Going Out in Style)

In a year just begging for good protest songs, Flogging Molly tried really hard and fell flat. Dropkick Murphys, another band you’d expect to join the cause, released perhaps their most generic album to date (still good mind you, but not a real chart topper). Take ‘Em Down is kind of out of place on the album, but it’s DKM to the core, and as best I can gather it’s an original song, not a cover of a traditional track. If so, it’s probably the most appropriate thing written all year. (The video is fan made.)

If you’re interested in my actual top 10, it runs something like this:

10. Falkenbach – Where His Ravens Fly…
9. Waldgeflüster – Kapitel I: Seenland
8. Liturgy – High Gold
7. Endstille – Endstille (Völkerschlächter)
6. Blut aus Nord – Epitome I
5. Krallice – Intro/Inhume
4. Liturgy – Harmonia
3. Krallice – Diotima
2. Krallice – Telluric Rings
1. Krallice – Dust and Light

And that excludes so many dozens of amazing songs that it seems almost pointless to post it.

Review: The Decemberists – The King is Dead

Apparently this leaked in mid-December, but with all the holiday hassle I’ve only this weekend been able to start catching up on music again.

So, I’m on my third listen through this at the moment, and I’m kind of stumped on how to discuss it without revisiting their entire discography. I think if any other band released The King is Dead I wouldn’t give it the time of day. At face value it’s a standard countrified rock album that doesn’t present anything particularly special. I’ll even go so far as to say if The Decemberists released it five years ago it would have marked their end as the kings of indie rock. (Pun slightly intended?) But it has to be considered in its proper place and time.

Colin Meloy’s lyrical brilliance has been present since the get-go. Anyone who’s heard their “5 Songs” EP from 2001 should recognize in My Mother was a Chinese Trapeze Artist the same wit that prevailed in later, more famous works.

What did change over the years was their quality as musicians and song-writers. “5 Songs” boasted nothing comparable in musical creativity to 2002’s Cataways and Cutouts. With each new album a higher bar was set, and practically every song that followed rose to the challenge. Lyrically, Meloy probably peaked in 2005, with The Mariner’s Revenge Song on Picaresque.

From there the comedy act was cut back; Meloy returned to a more subtle cleverness. The band took the same turn musically, and with 2006’s The Crane Wife reached what might be the highest point in indie music. If not the most inspired album of the genre–I reserve that title for Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea–I have to consider it the all-around best. Here are Yankee Bayonet and Sons and Daughters as examples.

Then, in 2009, The Hazards of Love happened. It wasn’t completely unprecedented; in 2004 they released The Tain EP, an experimental break from their standard sound, which attempted, quite successfully I think, to create something far more thematic and sophisticated than mere indie rock. The Hazards of Love added to this 18 minute experiment five years of experience, and produced what can only really be described as a rock opera. Coming in at just under an hour, the album is a single piece, not a collection of independent songs. It deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest musical accomplishments of all time. It can’t be captured in a single movement, but here are two excerpts to give you an idea.

Now it’s 2011, about time for a new album, and I don’t think the band need be too full of themselves to ask “Where the hell do we go from here?” They surely knew they couldn’t top what they’d just accomplished any time soon, so they didn’t even bother trying. Is The King is Dead a “safe” album? A sort of “sorry guys” to the fans who just weren’t prepared for the intensity and complexity of Hazards of Love? Hardly, though it could be misconstrued as such. I think it’s The Decemberists coming down off their own high. I imagine it’s difficult to be as… musically intelligent as they are without some fear of becoming pretentious. Getting back to some good old country rock was the natural thing to do. I don’t imagine anyone expected to hear another Hazards of Love, but don’t be disappointed that it’s not another Crane’s Wife either. It’s pretty damn good for what it is, it just doesn’t reach for the stars.

I’ll post up four songs from the new album. Don’t Carry It All is the opening track. It’s worth noting that the fiddle and accordion interlude in Rox in the Box is from the Irish traditional song Raggle Taggle Gypsy (see variations by The Irish Descendants and The Chieftains). It’s not worth noting that This is Why We Fight, which I decided not to post, sounds like it’s straight off an Our Lady Peace album, and furthermore that my obsession with Our Lady Peace is a very embarrassing secret.

Don’t Carry It All

Rox in the Box

Rise to Me

Down by the Water

Ten Bands You Ought to Experience Live

Having seen 263 different bands live, and a good many of those more than once, I offer you a top 10 list based on ample experience. Oh there might be better live bands out there, but mark my words, these guys are among the very best.

10. Sunn O)))
1 time: 20090917
Recommended album: Black One, or their collaboration with Boris: Altar
Sunn O))) is what happens when an ancient mystery cult encounters electricity. This is probably the closest you can get in this day and age to a true pagan spiritual experience. This is amplifier worship in the literal sense.

9. The Mountain Goats
1 time: 20061029
No Children off of Tallahassee
Recommended album: All Hail West Texas
A funny looking man picks up an acoustic guitar and starts singing you a story about two young lads named Jeff and Cyrus. As the painfully awkward lyrics inform you of their botched efforts to form a metal band, accusing society’s lack of tolerance for holding their dreams at bay, you really start to wonder whether you should cheer the guy on or steal his lunch money. Then the story reaches its conclusion with a chorus of “Hail Satan! Hail Satan tonight!”, everyone in the audience is singing along, and you at last realize that it doesn’t really matter whether you understand the guy or not. This is delightful. If you bother to dig around a little, read more of the lyrics, catch the references here and there, you’ll come to find that John Darnielle absolutely “gets it”. The joke was on you. But it was a clever innocent joke, because everything this guy writes is just as honest as it is intentionally comical. Show up, sing along, listen to his stories, walk away smiling.

8. Týr
2 times: 20080516, 20080517
Hail to the Hammer off of various albums
Recommended album: Eric the Red
“Viking metal” is as much an ethos as a musical style. Indeed, I hesitate to label any but the most undeniable bands “viking”, as opposed to “folk” or “pagan”. But in Týr we find the true third generation of the genre, following Bathory and Falkenbach, with whom they share little stylistically save a knack for writing anthemic heavy metal pagan hymns. I never got into Týr much until I saw them live, but was impressed by their great vocal harmonies, trance-like song progressions, and most notably the confidence with which they could hold the stage even when singing a cappella. By the end of the night I was making arrangements to drive three hours away to see them again.

7. Cracker
3 times: 20060614, 20071031, 20090527
St. Cajetan off of Cracker
Recommended album: Garage D’Or best of compilation
Cracker are the most underrated band of the last 20 years. I’ve been a fan since Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now) and Low were radio staples in the early 90s, but when I finally saw them live for the first time in 2006, I was blown away by their energetic stage presence. Johnny Hickman is a rock guitar guru, blending the established melodies with bluesy improvisations that at no point feel forced. David Lowery, nearly 50, rocks out harder than most younger musicians today. You’ll show up with limited hopes of tapping your feet to a few old familiar songs and discover a band that ranges from head-banging rock to slow tongue-in-cheek ballads to plodding blues-worship masterpieces.

6. Explosions in the Sky
1 time: 20070429
Your Hand in Mine off of The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place
Recommended album: The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place
The name says it all. Granted I saw them main stage at Coachella on a sound system set to support Rage Against the Machine’s first gig in nearly a decade, I have to imagine their music completely encompasses any venue. Explosions in the Sky write songs so compelling that you will completely forget you’re at a gig. The music penetrates everything in its vicinity and thrusts itself into you so forcefully that no amount of distractions will diminish the experience.

5. The Decemberists
4 times: 20040627, 20040628, 20061024, 20090814
excerpt from The Hazards of Love
Recommended album: The Crane Wife
The Decemberists have evolved from a thoroughly entertaining sideshow into a complex, operatic experience, without losing track of their original nature. Last time I saw them they performed the Hazards of Love rock opera in its hour long entirety without breaks, then returned for a good half hour of interactive fun. Audience participation is required, but hard to resist when they’re marching up and down the aisles in parade, awkwardly yanking people out of their seats to perform weird skits set to their older songs.

4. Boris
3 times: 20070316, 20071019, 20080629
Farewell off of Pink
Recommended album: Akuma No Uta
A youtube comment for this video described Farewell as “probably the greatest sludge ballad of all time”. Remember that feeling of disintegrating into the world that you got the first time you listened to Converge’s “Jane Doe” or Explosions in the Sky’s “The Birth and Death of Day”? A video of Boris can’t possibly do them justice. The shear volume of sound is their most distinguishable characteristic. On songs like “Farewell” it will disolve you. On songs like “My Neighbor Satan” it will implode you. On songs like “Naki Kyoku” it will chill you out in a mellow bliss.

5 times: 20060723, 20061124, 20070707, 20071006, 20090923
Womb with a View off of War Party
Recommended album: Beyond Hell
Ever seen a man in a pig suit get a spear jammed up his ass and split out the top of his spine? Ever get soaked in the blood and puss launching forth from the gaping wound, while a monster with a three foot dick sings about raping your girlfriend and feeding her to bears? …What, that doesn’t sound fun? Everyone should see GWAR live at least once. You will either become a cult follower or start going to church more.

2. Dropkick Murphys
3 times: 20070913, 20080307, 20090629
Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced off of Blackout
Recommended album: The Meanest of Times
If you’ve ever drank a beer and liked it, you are a Dropkick Murphys fan. Their gigs are more like giant parties… Well, parties with bagpipes and Guinness.

1. Blind Guardian
2 times: 20061210, 20061211
Mirror Mirror off of Nightfall in Middle-Earth
Recommended album: NiME or A Night at the Opera
Hansi Kursch is the King of the Nerds, and we must give our worthy sage the rightful placement he deserves. What happens when you combine Iron Maiden stage presence with the most epic melodies ever written and lyrics about the Dark Lord Sauron? Click and see my friend. Click and see.