The Decemberists – Her Majesty the Decemberists (Kill Rock Stars)
Colin Meloy, with his lovely languid voice, his daunting vocabulary and his baffling knowledge of 19th-century European history, accounts for a considerable amount of the Decemberists’ allure. The Portland ensemble’s new album Her Majesty the Decemberists, a fitting successor to 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts, is rife with the front man’s less-than-rock-and-roll pet themes of soldiers, sailors and downtrodden proles. Reappearing too, on tracks like “Shanty for the Arethusa” and “Chimbley Sweep” (respectively, the band’s second pirate- and chimney sweep-themed songs on record) is the jaunty cadence that made the best Castaways tracks so compelling.
On the songs that work best, the Decemberists bring all of their unusual instrumentation – Wurlitzers and vibraphones, pedal steels and glockenspiels – to bear, and craft vibrant melodies and sailing crescendos. Too often, however, the band seems to use Meloy’s always-excellent vocals as an excuse to avoid fleshing out the songs, leaving promising tunes such as “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” and “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” feeling… lite. Her Majesty is a literate and engaging work, though not all of its elements carry Meloy’s inventiveness and tenacity.
MP3s of “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” and “The Soldiering Life” via killrockstars.com.
Scott Tuma – The River 1 2 3 4 (Truck Stop)
A sparse, dark collection of four untitled tracks that swirl the melancholy banjo-in-a-tin-can sound of Iron and Wine, bright acoustic folk guitar bringing to mind Leo Kottke, and heavy ambient space that’s like the calm-before-the-storm part of a Godspeed record without quite the same blue-ball inducing expansiveness. Ghostly sounds like creaky rocking chairs or reaping tools knocking together in a woodshed add atmosphere and occasionally a sort of accidental percussion. It’s ambient folk, and it’s gorgeous.
Download some Scott Tuma mp3s from Epitonic.
Iron and Wine – Sea and the Rhythm EP (Sub Pop)
For those unfamiliar with the plaintive, almost-unproduced four-tracked work of Sam Beam, that restrained voice around which Miami’s Iron and Wine orbits, last year’s The Creek Drank the Cradle was a heartbreaking amalgam of banjo, slide guitar, dust and longing. His songs, which draw from all of the Southern standbys – bluegrass, folk, blues and gospel – lament the loss of loves and better times, just as the simple arrangements and folksy instrumentation anchor the sound in a time gone by.
Sam Beam is not an artist one really hopes or expects to “evolve” his sound or “take off in a new direction.” His music has a very intentional anachronistic quality to it, the nature of which sort of defies updating. And so it is not disappointment or boredom but gratitude with which we receive these 5 songs, each of which would have been worthy of making the cut for The Creek Drank the Cradle, and a few of which would have been some of the strongest on the LP. Notably, the title track is a beautiful sad love song that boasts Beam’s boldest vocals to date, to breathtaking effect, and “Jesus the Mexican Boy” successfully weaves a narrative more concrete than the songwriter’s usual (admittedly well-crafted) vague stories.