November 01, 2011 - Capitol
The track list for Long Live The King, the latest EP from hyper-literate indie-folk vets the Decemberists, calls to mind the band’s last series of short-form studio releases—2008’s vinyl- and download-only Always The Bridesmaid singles series, a batch of principally traditional Decemberistian pop tunes cut during the sessions for 2009’s The Hazards Of Love but deemed useless to that record’s tightly woven program of vignettes about forest monsters and murderous rakes. Both projects find five stray originals augmented by an unlikely cover—there, a haphazard Velvet Underground tune featuring a rare lead vocal from keyboardist Jenny Conlee; here, a slice of vintage Grateful Dead (“Row Jimmy”) in which recovering Dead-hater Colin Meloy supplies his now-unmistakable tics to his Dead-loving band mates’ impressively faithful replication of Garcia & Co.’s original, from 1973’s Wake Of The Flood. As the title suggests, Long Live The King comes as a companion piece to January’s The King Is Dead, which had as little use for these bits of studio shrapnel as Hazards had for the Bridesmaid tracks.
Regrettably, there’s nothing here as instantly gripping as “Valerie Plame” or “Raincoat Song,” songs legitimately conceived in a different artistic (and narrative) register than the album their sessions ultimately produced, and cleverly released in a classicist A-side/B-side format that befit their general accessibility. Long Live The King, by comparison, sounds distinctly like a cutting-room-floor exercise—a collection of outtakes left behind not in the name of aesthetic cohesion, but simply because the group had better songs more deserving of release. The King is Dead, as the first Decemberists album to top the Billboard charts, clearly proved its appeal beyond the band’s niche audience of good-natured college kids who find pop music a more enjoyable vocabulary builder than musty old books. The companion volume, however, is a pretty blatant for-fans-only affair—a pleasant helping of Decemberists-by-numbers for the more-is-more contingent, but nothing a more general audience can’t find done better elsewhere.
Admittedly, this saddles the EP with an unearned air of mediocrity. Colin Meloy, after 10 years, remains among the most accomplished songwriters of his generation, and despite their formal simplicity, the best The King Is Dead tracks have weathered their near-year of life with class, while the worst ones have unveiled hidden hooks and pleasures not readily apparent on inaugural listens. Songs such as “E. Watson” and “Burying Davy,” though ultimately retreads of ground this band have covered dozens of times prior, are rooted in that same sensibility—they’re just anchored by a dirge-like slog that gives the likes of “Rox In The Box” and “June Hymn” the edge. Of further interest is “I 4 U & U 4 ME,” an endearingly loose home demo that recalls the early B-side “Sunshine” (released on 2004’s “Billy Liar” single), only grounded in a melodic maturity elusive to the earlier track. Particularly as it gives way to the collection’s two final and weakest cuts (“Row Jimmy” and the falsetto-cluttered misstep “Sonnet”), its off-the-cuff levity is a boon the EP’s front-to-back playability.
The gem of the collection, however, is “Foregone,” a lovely piece of dusky country rock that finds Conlee and multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk evoking the Band’s Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson, respectively. Tastefully airy and sung with stoic regret, it achieves with its descending Paul Simon melody what The King Is Dead opener “Don’t Carry it All” couldn’t: Without the bombast of the big rock drums and the folkie clichés dripping from the wailing, shrill harmonica, it proves the Decemberists’ business dawdling in the down-home roots-rock simplicity which was supposedly a response to criticisms of The Hazards Of Love’s far less subtle theatrics. The house-cleaning projects of lesser bands have certainly yielded far worse.