Woody Allen used to joke that he “was at two with nature” but decamping to Pendarvis Farm in Portland to record in a barn seems to have worked wonders for the Decemberists. The group’s sixth album, The King Is Dead, is a delight. Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy is steeped in British folk history (he admits to having ‘pored over’ the incomparable Dick Gaughan) but the band have turned to Americana for the inspiration for their new album, admitting previous efforts were a “little overwrought”. Meloy made a smart movein teaming up with the superb Gillian Welch, who provides duet and backing vocals on seven of the 10 tracks. Meloy said: “Gillian’s voice has enough character to stand out against my famous donkey bray.” They are particularly effective together on Dear Avery and Rise To Me with some delicate harmonies.
Peter Buck also guest stars on guitars and mandolin on three songs – sounding very REM-like on This Is Where We Fight – and the whole album sounds as though it was recorded by people enjoying themselves. January Hymn is a moving song about loss of love: How I lived a childhood in snow, And all my teens in tow, Stuffed in a strata of clothes. but the bucolic feel of the album is never cloying and January Hymn is balanced by the hopeful June Hymn. The Decemberists blend rock and folk well (there’s even a nod to the famous Raggle Taggle Gypsy Man in a riff on Rox In The Box) and the songwriting crafts pastoral and emotional imaginery into tight-knit, attractive songs. This album is an unexpected treat.