With a wintry name and a bandleader who confesses "slavish love" for Morrissey, England's king of the bleak and tongue-in-cheek, the Decemberists don't seem like a sunny lot. That doesn't mean the Portland, Ore., five-piece aren't enjoying their fame, which has grown since they signed with Capitol Records in 2005. Contentment just looks a bit different on these ultra-literate folk-rock anglophiles, who play Overture Hall April 19.
The band gained a bit of pep thanks to a recent surprise. Their latest album, The King Is Dead, reached the top spot on the Billboard 200 chart in February, despite departing from the lush chamber-pop and British folk influences of previous releases.
Though the title seems to honor The Queen Is Dead, the 1986 release by Morrissey's band the Smiths, it's actually a homage to the soul of Americana, heartland rock and the bands that shaped 1980s college radio. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck appears on three of the album's 10 songs, and hints of Neil Young, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen seep into others. Americana icons Gillian Welch and David Rawlings even stop by, contributing vocal harmonies that are as chilling as they are beautiful. This isn't a "happy" album. It mines homegrown melancholy, one phrase at a time.
The new tunes are less gilded than most of the material on the band's previous release, 2009's The Hazards of Love, an elaborate, 17-track tale about a love-struck woman, her forest-dwelling beau, an evil villain and a jealous fairy queen. It's just the kind of album a bunch of bookworms and band nerds were destined to create, bound by the conventions of semi-obscure 1960s folksingers like Anne Briggs and 1970s folk rockers Steeleye Span.
In contrast, The King Is Dead is rustic and spare, with clear, direct themes and stripped-down arrangements. The arcane historical references, which are the Decemberists' trademark and their curse, seem toned down as well, leaving the music and its listeners free to breathe - and even smile, once in a while.
Overture Hall, Tuesday, April 19, 7:30 pm