Hailing from Portland -- the Oregon town that punches well above its weight culturally -- The Decemberists have plotted an intriguing course over the past 10 years. With a brand of alternative rock rooted in the US College Radio tradition, their country-tinged songs are bracingly erudite. Not many of their American contemporaries would seek as inspiration an ancient Irish myth, but that's what they did with the 18-minute The Tain.
Their last album, The Hazards of Love, was a conceptual affair that lost its way quite badly -- the band have been afflicted with a tendency to over-reach -- and the veritable rock opera left long-term fans baffled.
This sixth album is much more assured, with several songs capable of nudging the band into the mainstream. The title doffs its hat to The Smiths (frontman Colin Meloy is a Morrissey fan, with 1986's The Queen is Dead one of his favourite albums), but it's another band that came to prominence in the 80s that has provided most inspiration for the songs here. This, by their own admission, is The Decemberists' REM album.
That view is reinforced by the presence of REM guitarist Peter Buck, who guests on three tracks, including a stand-out, Calamity Song. With Buck's distinctive 12-string Rickenbacker employed, it's a tune that would not have sounded out of place on REM's first two albums, Murmur and Reckoning.
Down by the Water, meanwhile, is more like Automatic for the People-era REM. Buck is once again on hand with a memorable riff and the song is augmented with vocals from Americana queen Gillian Welch. The song features other heavyweight touchstones too, not least Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.
Incidentally, in releasing this album, Meloy et al have been both sensible and innovative. The King is Dead can be streamed in its entirety for free on the NPR website until Tuesday, while hardcore fans can purchase limited-edition box-sets of the album for $165. Featuring a CD, vinyl, DVD and hardcover book designed by Carson Ellis (Meloy's wife), these are limited to 2,500.
The Decemberists play Dublin's Vicar Street on March 4.
Burn it: Calamity Song; This is Why We Fight; Down by the Water
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