Coming Back Around
People still regularly listen to Castaways and Cutouts, even 13 years later. It’s one of The Decemberists’ most well-known albums, next to 2011’s The King Is Dead, which contained Grammy-nominated track “Down By the Water.” Even after all this time, ears perk and eyes light up when there’s new stuff from The Decemberists to listen to. The Portland-based band, fronted by Colin Meloy along with original members Nate Query, Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk and John Moen, drummer since 2005, haven’t released anything since 2012. That was until this year when What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World emerged in January, and this has been followed up with Florasongs, an EP of five tracks that didn’t make the cut for Terrible World.
Leftover tracks probably won’t be the best, especially if they’re leftover tracks from an album that received only okay reviews. But nevertheless, The Decemberists are storytellers, so you never know when or which one of their songs will hit you just right. And since Decemberists songs have ranged in theme from politics, historical events and tall tales stuffed into ballads, you really never know what you’re going to get story-wise, so it’s always exciting.
But the excitement meter only goes a little higher than that on Florasongs. There aren’t any grandiose moments like those heard on previous albums and the EP is cumulatively far more calm, cool and collected than previous works as well. For the most part that works (see: “Riverswim”). But once in awhile it sounds like a lackadaisical swing when you’re used to them forcefully swinging away (see: “Fits & Starts”).
Backup vocals from Conlee on opener “Why Would I Now” are pleasing and add a soothing layer, and the moments the song briefly strips down enough to reveal just the acoustic guitar and Meloy’s unique, artfully crafted alternative/country vocals are nice. She is again particularly pleasing in “The Harrowed And The Haunted,” a song that might cause some less in-the-know Decemberists listeners to question if it was an R.E.M. song first.
A lot of times when bands take a hiatus, they come back not exactly as themselves. Using Terrible World and Florasongs as examples, that case could be made. But that may not be a bad thing.