A decade after the band formed -- and five years and two albums after it signed to Capitol -- the Decemberists are returning to their folk-rock roots. At just the right time, perhaps: The team surrounding the Portland, Ore. band says this is the group's moment.
"In a time when some might say artist development may have lost its way in our business, this is a great artist development story," EMI executive VP of marketing Greg Thompson says. "The Decemberists have built a real career, and it's the right record for them right now."
Some would say the band already had one moment in 2006, when fourth album "The Crane Wife" yielded numerous TV, film and ad synchs, or at South by Southwest in 2009, when the Decemberists premiered their fifth set, "The Hazards of Love," in its entirety to a manic crowd at a sold-out NPR Showcase at Stubb's in Austin.
This time around, however, listeners will find none of the operatic folk tales or Shakespearean song cycles they're familiar with from the Decemberists' previous two albums. Instead, the songs on sixth album "The King Is Dead" -- due Jan. 18 on Capitol/EMI -- showcase what one of the band's managers, Jason Colton of Red Light Management, calls a "classic American sound."
"The King Is Dead," in other words, features a decidedly simpler songwriting approach than in years past. And that newfound conciseness and accessibility just might give the band a real shot at radio airplay -- notably with lead single "Down by the Water."
"Triple A radio has embraced the track," Thompson says. "It got a boost when they performed it on 'Conan' [on Nov. 18] and I think, absolutely, doors are opening for the Decemberists that might not necessarily have been there before."
"Down by the Water" -- which, like six other tracks on the album, prominently features vocals from Americana staple Gillian Welch -- is No. 11 this week on Billboard's Triple A chart.
The single, which was offered as a free download through a Topspin widget on the Decemberists' official website in early November, has expanded the band's online following. The song's download campaign boosted the group's e-mail subscription list by 67%, according to Thompson.
Frontman/primary songwriter Colin Meloy, though, says radio airplay -- at least in this century -- doesn't rank as a major concern."I don't think about that stuff, to be honest," Meloy says. "I'd be better off on the radio if I had a time machine and could go to Athens, Ga. in 1986 to write music."
Because Meloy and company can't turn the clock back, they brought a bit of Athens 1986 to 2011 -- in the form of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who plays guitar and/or mandolin on three of 10 tracks.
"On a lot of songs I wrote for this record, I was trying to free my mind from more academic music interests I had over the last four or five years and trying to reconnect with some of the music that initially got me playing guitar and writing songs in the first place," Meloy says. "So I started writing these boldfaced R.E.M. songs, and I thought, 'If we're going to go there, it would be fun to get Peter [Buck] to get onboard,' and he was totally into it."
Buck's contributions help balance the record's two focuses: '80s indie and vintage country-rock. Meanwhile, the down-home sounds and what Meloy calls the "pastoral imagery" of "The King Is Dead" drew inspiration from the album's recording location -- inside a barn.
"There was a lot of discussion at the end of last year about where and how to make this record," manager Colton says. "They wanted to stay close to home but weren't looking for a traditional studio environment, and they kept coming back to a site they were familiar with -- Pendarvis Farm.
"The nontraditional studio location, on the outskirts of Portland, came in handy when assembling a "King Is Dead" deluxe boxed set for sale on the band's website. The Decemberists partnered with photographer Autumn de Wilde and the Impossible Project, which manufactures Polaroid-style instant analog film, to shoot 2,500 photos in and around the farm. Each boxed set will include one of the original shots by de Wilde, as well as a 72-page hardcover book of highlights from the shoots. Additionally, more traditional goodies are included in the $165 boxed set: CD and vinyl versions of the album, a short film documenting the making of the set and an illustrated print.
After the album's release, the band will tour the United States and Europe through the winter. While Meloy says writing simpler songs for "The King Is Dead" was more of a challenge than the band's complicated past endeavors, touring will marry his two songwriting styles.
"It'll be fun to revisit some of the longer stuff-the song cycles-but obviously there will be some stuff that we just won't be able to do," Meloy says. "Which is fine.. with as long as we've been around, we aren't starving for more options."