Long live hyper-literate folk rock

Sarah Contreras

Hyper-literate folk darlings The Decemberists are closing out a banner year with a new EP, Long Live The King.

The past eleven months have seen The Decemberists run a gamut of musical and personal triumph. Together, they released a Billboard Top 200 and iTunes chart-topping album (The King Is Dead) and ventured on a multi-national tour replete with festival and late night talk show appearances. Separately, they published a Young Adult novel (lead singer Colin Meloy) and rose victorious over breast cancer (accordionist Jenny Conlee). One would think they’d be content to leave well enough alone. But they aren’t, and your ears will be thankful for that.

If the title wasn’t a give-away, the six tracks that make up Long Live The King are songs recorded during the The King Is Dead sessions. The Decemberists’ decision to be as concise and stripped down as possible left off material deserving of separate release. True to form, The Decemberists open this EP with a song based on a real-life plantation owner. “E. Watson” is the clearest echo of The King Is Dead, with a bare-bones sound and hefty helping of American lore. Band friend Laura Veirs and Alaskan songstress Annalisa Tornfelt lend their voices to a gorgeous harmony, giving Long Live The King a solid start. The Decemberists then break out their signature dark and dramatic tone with “Burying Davy.” The track carries strong airs of Southern Gothicism; in fact, I was reminded of another trek made to bury a family member in the South. Did Meloy mean to remind his fans of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying? Given his penchant for literature, probably.

Because Long Live The King is so short, it is hard not to label every track a standout. No stranger to art of the cover song (see: their version of Fruit Bats “When U Love Somebody”), the band tackles and conquers the Grateful Dead’s “Row Jimmy” with aplomb. The brief but sweet “Sonnet” employs a jolly horn section and saloon-style piano to back Meloy’s ebullient vocals. Meanwhile, “Foregone” harkens back to the less polished roots of the band (Meloy’s first recorded band, Tarkio), and “I 4 U & U 4 Me” provides a more knockabout sound for your adventurous college nights.

I won’t lie. I completely understand why these songs were left off of The King Is Dead. That album was an exercise in maturity and restraint; the songs featured formed a perfect storm of nostalgia combined with progression. However, Long Live The King is just as perfect in its own right.

The EP tightly brings together some of the different sounds that have been explored throughout The Decemberists discography; the crawling guitar riffs of The Hazards of Love, Castaways and Cutouts‘ haunting melodies and the honky tonk of The King Is Dead all shine with the bright polish of The Crane Wife. If you’re interested in listening to a band that is firing on all cylinders, give Long Live The King a listen.