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.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Say Yes and Be Set Free- Langhorne Slim

The guitar player is kneeling on the ground strumming his guitar in a rock and roll frenzy. The drummer’s sweat is flying all over as he is beating his snare drums and smashing cymbals at an incredible pace. The bass player is frantically hitting the frets as he spins his upright bass. The crowd is bouncing up and down and is right with the band as the song hits its final crescendo. Welcome to the energy of Langhorne Slim.

Langhorne (Sean Scolnick) and his reliable band of Jeff Ratner (bass) and his longtime drummer Malachi DeLorenzo have been making great music together the past few years. Langhorne is truly happy when he is making music and his music has made many of his fans happy. His music is hard to define. It is a mixture of roots, americana, alt-country, with a mix of folk, bluegrass and a touch of punk. His voice brings forward all his influences with his great phrasing of the lyrics. You honestly need to listen to a full album to appreciate his musical range.

He takes his name from his hometown of Langhorne, Pennsylvania. He and his original band The War Eagles were signed to V2 records in 2006 and released an EP on that label. They then signed with Kemado Records and released a critically acclaimed self titled album in 2008. In 2009 he released Be Set Free which was produced by Chris Funk of The Decemberists.They have been touring almost non stop since 2006. They have opened for bands like Cake, The Avett Brothers, The Violent Femmes, and the Drive By Truckers .They have earned a very loyal fan base that is constantly expanding. Many people go to his live shows because of his great reputation. You can get a sense of this from this in-studio video of "Say Yes" from Be Set Free:

I have had the pleasure of working his merch table a number of times. He is a very nice,personable, and a thoughtful person. I have always been impressed with the amount of time he spends with his fans. He must be zapped of energy after one of his shows, but every show I have worked for him, he has come out after the show to sign autographs and have his picture taken. He seems to be very comfortable and really enjoys this interaction. He is always humble and looks the person who he is talking with, in the eye. He gives that person his undivided attention and makes them feel as though he has known them for a while. This is not always typical of a lot of bands. I encourage you to listen to his music and enjoy his vast musical range.