[24 August 2011]
The following is a statement that might get this writer a lot of flak from Decemberists fans, but they were (as opposed to are) a great band. Everything was peachy keen in my opinion until the indie folk-rock group unleashed The Hazards of Love in 2009, a sprawling 17-song concept album that was overly ambitious in execution and, lacking any great hooks, saw the band hit a brick wall: that record, in my esteemed view, is almost flat-out unlistenable. (And, yes, I understand there are people who love the album to the point of being fanatical about it just from reading one reader’s take in the comments section of PopMatters’ review of The King Is Dead, as that review more or less said the same thing about Hazards. However, objectively, you have to conclude it’s a real misfire stacked against the band’s earlier material.) Earlier this year, the band tried to regroup by releasing the countrified The King Is Dead, which was serviceable but also unmemorable in the same breath—especially when you compare it to an utter classic like Her Majesty the Decemberists or Picaresque. However, The King Is Dead earned the group their very first No. 1 album on Billboard, so it seems probable that the group decided to put out their latest, an online exclusive release up for discussion here, as a means of taking a run around the race track with their victory medals held high up in the air.
The problem with iTunes Session EP, an eight-song collection recorded in a Los Angeles studio, is that it is by and large a mostly pointless exercise. The versions of “Calamity Song”, “June Hymn” and “This is Why We Fight”—all taken from The King Is Dead—are virtually unchanged in arrangement from their album predecessor. In particular, “Calamity Song”, which opens this extended play, is such a note-for-note reading of the The King Is Dead version, it reminded me of that series of old TV commercials for ABC laundry detergent from the 1980s where, if I’m recalling this correctly (YouTube wasn’t a big help), a couple of old ladies in a laundromat setting would examine a white sheet washed with ABC and one washed with a, cough, leading brand (Tide, anyone?). One would turn to the other and exclaim, “I can’t see a difference. Can you see a difference?” Well, I can’t see a difference between the two takes of the same song. The running times are almost exactly exact, with the iTunes Session EP version being only a scant eight seconds clipped from the album take, and that minute variation has to take into account that there’s a brief snippet of speech at the very beginning of The King Is Dead track that is omitted on the iTunes Session EP. So, all in all, the iTunes Session EP offers up pretty much the same song.
This unassuming start to the extended play is a bit of a head scratcher: why perform a song almost exactly the same way as it appeared on the definitive album edition little more than half a year ago? Are the Decemberists either bored with their material or overly enamoured by it that they felt they had to recreate it unchanged? It’s hard to tell. As the same fate befalls the two other The King Is Dead tracks to be found here—although it should be noted that “June Hymn” is played at a slightly faster tempo on the proper album, thought that’s hardly to be construed as an overly major difference—the iTunes Session EP is an appropriate means for someone without The King Is Dead to pick up some of that album’s highlights at a marginal price without having to shell out for an entire CD (assuming that you still buy CDs). It just seems to be the only reason for the existence of the iTunes Session EP—at least, insofar as I can tell.
The same fate befalls “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)” from The Hazards of Love debacle, which comes equipped with the exact same pedal steel guitar solo ripped right out of the album version. Again, this just seems like an exercise in utter redundancy. The iTunes Session EP version of the song runs five minutes and 54 seconds. The Hazards of Love’s take? Five minutes and 57 seconds. It’s exactly the same song, for all intents and purposes—if you overlook that the strings of the album version are replaced by a piano. Therefore, again, if you never bought The Hazards of Love, and want to take home one of the more salvageable songs from that LP, well, the iTunes Session EP might just fit the bill. The only conclusion you can make is that Colin Meloy and company thought that it was a good enough track, so why mess with perfection?
There is at least one place on the record where there is a bit of shading to an existing song in the Decemberists’ back catalogue. “Shankill Butchers” (my least favourite song from The Crane Wife) does get gussied up with the addition of a tuba, a flamenco guitar solo and a drum part—and it’s rather unfortunate that the band didn’t really see to overhaul the most recent material that permeates this release in a similar fashion. In fact, if you want to really examine these tracks with the precision of a jeweller’s magnifying glass, the only noticeable difference between most of these recordings and their album counterparts, by and large, is that the instrumentation seems to be a little sharper and clear here—which might have something to do with the presumably live-off-the-floor take on the material on this online release.
Long-time fans will probably want to download this collection due to the presence of two covers: Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and Fruit Bats’ “When U Love Somebody”. The first is given the Nashville treatment with its gentle acoustic guitar and a male-female duet that accentuates the loneliness of the lyrics. The pace quickens and some nice pedal steel and fiddles crop up by the solo section. In other words, it’s not terribly removed from the direction that the band went in with The King Is Dead. As for the Fruits Bats’ cover, it’s a full-on rave up that seemed ripped from the mid-‘80s period of John Mellencamp with its flavourful use of accordion and up-beat tempo; you can file it right into the Heartland Rock category. If Mellencamp is looking for another band to round out his Farm Aid bill, I could make a suggestion based on “When U Love Somebody” alone. Just sayin’.
While the iTunes Session EP did make me want to go back and reacquaint myself with the Decemberists’ recent back catalogue as this statement does make a perverse case for the strength of some their latter day material, this release is really pretty much of interest for two sets of fans. The first batch is for those who haven’t bought the last two or three records, and want a starting point into that aspect of the catalogue. The second batch is those fans that absolutely must have every scrap of music that Meloy and his bandmates have set to tape. As it stands, the iTunes Session EP is a perplexing and puzzling release, especially when you consider that five of its eight tracks are from the last three releases (meaning there’s no highlights from the band’s strongest run of material largely contained on their indie releases for Kill Rock Stars, not counting the presence of “Shiny” from the originally self-released 5 Songs EP). It’s one that has the band more or less showing off to the public its most recent scrape with success. Now that the group has done their little victory lap with the iTunes Session EP, you have to hope that the band maybe sits down on the race track, catches its collective breath, and really figures out where it should go from here. Because, as far as I’m concerned, there seems to be a real paucity of creativity within the band right now, a flaw that the iTunes Session EP, with its almost exact recreation of album cuts, all but makes more real and palatable.