Monday, January 24, 2011

Indie Music, The Decemberists, and The King is Dead

What makes music "Indie"? Is it the label, or is it a quality in the music or the lyrics? Is it the size of the audience or the type of venue a band plays? My friend, and co-blogger Fletcher believes that it is the amount of control that a band has over the music (type of music, track length, etc.) that is selected for an artists albums.  When I think of The Decemberists, these questions come to mind because, depending on which of the Decemberists' albums I play, I find that I  hear music with a huge range of influences and styles ranging from early English folk music to 1970s progressive rock. Further, while The Decemberists recorded for two different independent labels during their early years, The Decemberists now record for Capital Records, hardly what comes to mind when I think of an "indie" label. 

The Decemberists recently released their 6th album, their 3rd for Capital Records, entitled The King Is Dead.  It has been well promoted. I listened to it streamed from NPR for a couple of weeks prior to its official release. It is also featured on the iTunes home page and was reportedly the most downloaded album from iTunes on the day of its release.

The music on the new album has a wonderfully rootsy American sound,  a sound not heard on earlier releases, at least not in such abundance. The album starts off with the sounds of a harmonica, acoustic guitar and rhythmic drum, immediately signaling that this album will be decidedly different than 2009's The Hazards of Love which began wish an incredibly long and dramatic crescendo performed on a pipe organ.  Unlike that album, and all their previous albums, which was a concept album, The King is Dead is not. While the music has a different sound, the band's distinctively salient lyrics as written by frontman Colin Meloy, remain, well salient.  He seemingly unintentionally continues to drop AP-like word such as "trillium" into his songs. A guest appearance on The King Is Dead by REM's Peter Buck on guitar adds a welcome richly textured sound on six tracks, as does moving vocal harmony by Gillian Welch.

Another interesting note about this album is that for the first time The Decemberists have released an album in which none of the songs are longer than 10 minutes.  The longest track on The King Is Dead, "This is Why We Fight" runs 5:30.  While I have enjoyed their longer songs in the post on this album I enjoy the shorter numbers.  I can already tell that this will be one of my favorite albums of 2011.  "Down by the Water" from the new album was stuck in my head after just a couple of spins.

Here is a well-recorded live performance of O Valencia!, a song about two star-crossed lovers, from  The Crane Wife, The Decemberists' 4th album:

To me, "Indie" represents a creative spirit. No matter how successful artists or musical groups become, they are still "Indie" if they continue to create work that is new and innovative. Thus, in spite of their success, I believe The Decemberists are still one of the best "Indie" bands around.


  1. Another fabulous post. I learn so much about new music with each new post from you guys. I love the video, O Valencia, and take your word that the album will not disappoint. I have a lot to catch up on with this band. Of the 4 albums, do you and Fletcher have a favorite cut?

  2. I have loved this band from the first time I heard their album Picaresque which is still my favorite. My favorite song from that album is the lead off track "The Infanta". This is a band that has built a great resume of amazing songs while remaining with that independent spirit even while on a major label. They have always challenged themselves to produce the albums they want to produce.

  3. @Renee, you pose a tough question given how different each album is. While it is tempting to cop out and say I like them all I must confess that there was a time recently when I was listening almost non stop to The Crane Wife album, especially enjoying the track "The Crane Wife 3".