It would have been easy to write off the Decemberists. Over the years, the band from Portland, Ore., made a name for itself with its unique brand of hyperliterate, anachronistic folk-rock. Albums like 2003's Her Majesty and 2005's Picaresque brimmed with sweeping tales of doomed love; epic, blood feuds; and lonely chimbley sweeps.
But by the release of the group's fifth LP, 2009's The Hazards of Love, it appeared that the five-piece had finally jumped the proverbial shark. A meandering, overwrought concept album, the operatic Hazards alienated fans with its ponderous story lines and proggy self-indulgence. Yet just when it seemed certain that the Decemberists would forever disappear up their own rectum, they released The King Is Dead.
Released on Jan. 18 by Capital Records, King is a welcome bit of course correction that eschews high-conceptual tomfoolery in favor of good old Americana-inspired directness. Thanks to some help from guest stars Gillian Welch and REM's Peter Buck, the Decemberists have created a refreshing return to form that cranks up the energy without dumbing down frontman Colin Meloy's academic indulgences. The decision has paid off -- last week, the album was crowned No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. That's no small feat for a band usually known for nine-minute epics about getting swallowed by whales.
This is normally the part where we'd advise you to grab tickets for the Decemberists' Feb. 13 show at House of Blues, but, unfortunately, the show is already sold out. So instead, listen to/download the rousing, infectious "Down by the Water" (MP3) and try to be a little quicker on the draw next time.