Perhaps the best moment on the Decemberists' new album comes at the end of a tune called "Calamity Song," when frontman Colin Meloy provides a transcendent touch by climbing into his high register. "Ah-ooo," he sings. "Ah-ooo."
It's beautiful, and ironic to hear such momentous wordless vocals from a band that loves lofty lyrics. On "The King Is Dead," Meloy sings about a panoply, barony, trillium, bonhomie and - on each of the first two tunes - loam. Even with a dictionary, not all of it makes sense.
Still, this is the Oregon quintet's least cerebral album, especially compared with its elaborate 2009 song cycle, "The Hazards Of Love." Arrangements and song structures have been stripped down, and the result is a delightful, straightforward set of mostly acoustic folk rock.
Meloy's gift for melody makes every tune catchy, and as a singing partner he wisely recruits the luminous Gillian Welch, who shows she's in Emmylou Harris' league as a harmony vocalist. Guitarist Peter Buck also sits in, which is why a couple of jangly songs sound like R.E.M. outtakes. A pedal steel twangs, a fiddle and accordion dance in tandem, and Meloy channels his inner Neil Young on the harp as the Decemberists deftly expand their musical vocabulary.
CHECK THIS OUT: The band dares to attempt a coal-miner's lament, and Meloy's dark humor makes the hoary subject seem fresh on the toe-tapper "Rox In The Box." Great title, too.