For the Record: The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

Nephew2 must really like The Decemberists. This is the fourth album by this particular alt-rock band that he’s tossed my way. I liked them fine, like Mumford and Sons they kinda remind me of an Irish pub band. Imagine my surprise when I looked them up and found out they’re actually from Oregon. Lead singer Colin Meloy doesn’t sound like an Oregonian to me, but then I don’t know many Oregonians.

I enjoyed the first album of theirs I listened to — “Picaresque” — but diminishing returns began to sit in with the next two records. So I was not in any big hurry to listen to “The King Is Dead.” I put it in, let it play, think “yeah, that’s The Decemberists all right,” and don’t pay much attention.

Until track 6. Halfway through the song I look up from playing Tetris and think, “whoa, that’s a catchy tune.” I let the disc play out then go back to it: “Down By The Water.”

Like many a great rock song, it starts out with a driving percussion beat, then it breaks into a Springsteenesque howling harmonica before Meloy kicks in with the vocals. It’s got a catchy, oft-repeated line that then bleeds into the chorus. Aided and abetted by nice vocal harmonies by  Gillian Welch.

And that guitar lick, so hauntingly familiar. But where have I heard it? R.E.M.! That’s vintage R.E.M. But which song? Think, man, think. FIRE….. Holy crap, they’re stealing from “The One I Love?” If you’re going to plagiarise, you probably shouldn’t steal from a song so well known.

Curious, I look it up online. Not only are the similarities intentional, but they’ve got Peter Buck of R.E.M. playing guitar. I guess it’s not plagiarism if the guy who wrote it originally is playing it with you. So now I’m paying much closer attention and notice that other songs are very reminiscent of R.E.M. (most notably “Calamity Song” and “June Hymn.”) And not sleep-inducing modern R.E.M., but the more interesting old school R.E.M.

After going back and seriously listening to this album, I declare it awesome. Definitely my favorite of the Decemberists catalogue. There isn’t a bad track to be found and several very strong tracks. If you’re pining for vintage R.E.M. you should check it out.

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