After the bombastic, Baroque rock opera that was 2009’s “The Hazards of Love,” the Portland-based quintet, The Decemberists, threw everybody a curveball earlier this year when they released “The King is Dead,” a collection of country-rock songs that sounded as if they could’ve been inspired by the works of Neil Young.
With support in the recording studio from Americana darling Gillian Welch and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, “The King is Dead” had a jangle-y charm that won over critics and fans alike and was at one point the bestselling album on the Billboard Charts (a first for The Decemberists).
This week, the band released “Long Live the King,” a collection of outtakes and “B-sides” (does that term even mean anything anymore?) from “The King is Dead” recording sessions.
Most music fans view the term “outtakes” as a quality assurance warning of sorts. It’s kind of like going to one of your favorite restaurants and suddenly seeing a “B” health code grade on the wall.
In this case, however, there’s no need to worry. You don’t have to be a diehard Decemberists fan to appreciate the varied tracks on “Long Live the King.” In fact, it might be their varied nature that kept them off of “The King is Dead” in the first place.
The EP opens with the acoustic Civil War story-ballad, “E. Watson,” a song that sounds as if it would have been more at home on The Decemberists’ album, “The Crane Wife,” than on “The King is Dead.” It features beautiful backing vocals from Annalisa Tornfelt and Laura Veirs — always a good thing to have behind lead singer Colin Meloy’s plaintiff bleating (Meloy’s an acquired taste, with a “love it or can’t stand it” voice).
Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk closed “The Hazards of Love” with some of the prettiest pedal steel playing of the modern era. He continued to explore the instrument on “The King is Dead.” On “Long Live the King,” he plays a mean pedal steel on “Foregone” and slide guitar on the fantastic Grateful Dead cover tune, “Row Jimmy.”
“Burying Davy” was probably left off of “The King is Dead” because it is just so darn powerful and electric. Sounding more like an outtake from “Hazards,” the song is classic Decemberists, a somber funeral march of spine-tingling intensity.
If there’s one song on “Long Live the King” that does sound like an outtake, it is “I4U & U4ME.”
Obviously a home demo (the rest of the EP was recorded at Pendarvis Farm Studio, as was “The King is Dead”), the song is a pleasant, bouncy acoustic number that could probably be a hit for a more lightweight band.
“Long Live the King” closes with “Sonnet,” a somewhat unfinished sounding song that breaks into a wonderful horn-led instrumental part in the middle of the song. Like the song, “Valerie Plame,” from a previous Decemberists EP, it shows the band at its most playful.
“Long Live the King” will be of most interest to Decemberists fans and Grateful Dead completists who will have to possess the “Row Jimmy” cover. That’s not to say, however, that it doesn’t have something for everyone.
The Decemberists are online at http://www.decemberists.com.