Country rock rules on the Decemberists' ‘The King Is Dead’

(Autumn De Wilde)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / January 18, 2011

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After 2009’s “The Hazards of Love,’’ a dense, prog-rock concept album, you wondered where the Decemberists would go next. For their follow-up, they did possibly the only thing that would surprise their fans at this point: They ditched the pretense, reined in the guitars, and made a graceful country record. In a barn, no less.

Let’s clarify that: “country’’ as in the pastoral kind Neil Young and Bob Dylan recorded in the 1970s. For every acoustic guitar, there’s just as much pedal steel, tambourine, accordion, organ, and even bouzouki. “The King Is Dead’’ is the Portland, Ore., band’s most streamlined effort since 2005’s “Picaresque,’’ and it’s a welcome reminder that frontman Colin Meloy can write evocative songs where the words stand on their own.

To summon the spirit of ’70s country rock, the band enlisted sepia-toned singer Gillian Welch for seven of the 10 songs; she essentially plays Emmylou Harris to Meloy’s Gram Parsons, and their voices blend together naturally. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck is also on board, and there’s no mistaking his distinctive, shimmering guitar lines on “Calamity Song’’ and “Down by the Water,’’ the rootsy first single also featuring Welch.

They’ve come a long way from their early days of whimsical odes to chimney sweeps and pantaloons. But as the Decemberists have gradually ironed out some of that quirk, they’ve also become more engaging musicians. Best of all, they’ve finally figured how to translate their charm to the masses — with an album like this. (Out today)

ESSENTIAL “Calamity Song’’

The Decemberists perform at the House of Blues Jan. 28-29.