The Decemberists

“In some ways, this album was four years in the making,” says Colin Meloy, frontman and primary songwriter of the Decemberists. “We were on hiatus, so we had all the time we could want, no schedule or tour, no expectations.” With the ability to work at their own pace, the resulting record, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, is the band’s most varied and dynamic work, both musically and emotionally. Since their earliest recordings more than a decade ago, the Decemberists have always been known for their sense of scope and daring—from “The Tain,” an eighteen-and-a-half minute 2004 single based on an Irish myth to their last two ambitious, thematic albums, The Hazards of Love and
The King is Dead. This time, though, Meloy explains that they took a different approach: “Let’s make sure the songs are good, and eventually the record will present itself.”

The Decemberists—Meloy, Chris Funk (guitars), Jenny Conlee (keyboards), Nate Query (bass), and John Moen (drums)—had announced that they would be taking a break when their touring cycle finished following the release of 2011’s The King is Dead. Meloy wanted to spend time with his family and work on the
children’s book series that became the acclaimed, best-selling Wildwood trilogy. To be sure, they had reached a new peak in their career: King entered the Billboard album charts at Number One, and the track “Down by the Water” was nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Rock Song” category. Even during the hiatus, the group remained visible: they released an EP of outtakes from the album titled Long Live the King; contributed the song “One Engine” to the Hunger Games soundtrack; and put out We All Raise Our Voices to the Air, a live album documenting their ferocious intensity on stage. They even had the honor of appearing in animated form on The Simpsons, and performed on the season six finale of Parks and Recreation.

Mostly, however, Meloy was concentrating on the Wildwood series—the 1,500- page saga of two seventh-graders who are drawn into a hidden, magical forest, illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis. So when the band reassembled in May 2013, the plan wasn’t to make an album in their usual way.

“Typically we book four or five weeks in the studio and bang out the whole record,” says Meloy. “This time, we started by just booking three days, and didn’t know what we would record. There was no direction or focus; we wanted to just see what would come out. We recorded ‘Lake Song’ on the first day, live, and then two more songs in those three days. And the spirit of that session informed
everything that came after.”

They reconvened in the fall and added some more songs. Gradually, over the course of a year and a half, the album came into focus. What was initially apparent was a fuller, richer sound. “There was a grandiosity to the songs in different ways,” says Meloy, citing Leonard Cohen’s 1977 collaboration with Phil
Spector, Death of a Ladies’ Man, as a reference point. “We were layering textures, adding strings and dedicated backing vocals—the early songs created the peaks of the record, and that started to dictate the overall tone and tenor.” The first batch of songs, Meloy notes, represented the more personal side of his songwriting, a change from the strong narrative thrust that characterized much of
the Decemberists’ work. “Writing books as this raw, fantastic narrator has been the outlet for that part of my brain,” he says. “Having a family, having kids, having this career, getting older—all of these things have made me look more inward. So some of these songs are among the more intimately personal songs I’ve ever
written.”

Perhaps most notable is “12-17-12,” a song named for, and inspired by, the date that President Obama addressed the nation following the Newtown school shootings, and read the names of the victims. “I watched that speech and was profoundly moved,” says Meloy. “I was hit by a sense of helplessness, but also
the message of ‘Hold your family close,’ and this was my way of marking that for myself.” This bewildering, conflicted feeling came out in a phrase near the end of the song—“what a terrible world, what a beautiful world”—that gave the album its title.

As the sessions continued, other elements of the writing and the sound surfaced and a more rounded picture emerged. “As soon as I finished the books, I immediately started writing more narrative songs,” Meloy says. “‘Cavalry Captain,’ ‘Carolina Low,’ those all started coming out. But there was a more subtle voice coming in; I wanted moments of levity, a little tongue-in-cheek. Also,
we figured out that the big, pop sound we were making would also make the quieter moments more still, create more dynamic peaks and valleys.” Without a deadline, the Decemberists were also able to explore every song to completion. “Usually you have to let some songs slide because of time constraints,” Meloy says, “but nothing was relegated to the b-side pile, everything was given a fair shake. Which is a blessing and a curse—we ended up with 18 songs, and each had champions and detractors. There were a multitude of albums you could potentially make—somber, over-the-top pop, folk—and I think every band member would have created a different record.”

Ultimately, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World found its final form, a distillation of the best things about this remarkable band. A new way of working led to a renewed excitement about the next chapter for the Decemberists. “I’ve never lived with a record for so long,” says Colin Meloy, “documenting my shifts
and changes as a songwriter, with a real sense of time passing. And there’s something very freeing about working on music with absolutely no agenda, and just letting the songs become themselves.”

Justin Townes Earle

With Justin Townes Earle's pedigree come mixed blessings. As the son of legendary singer/songwriter Steve Earle, high expectations are the name of the game, and he's shown that he is up to the task on The Good Life, crafting stark portraits and narrative tales with elements of blues, classic country and rock n'roll. A modern-day troubadour, Earle blends genres seamlessly, framing his songs in warm musical settings and creating tunes that could easily be mistaken for classics. "I started out to make an old timey country record, but I listen to so many other kinds of music," Justin explained. "Some of the songs were rearranged on the spot and took on other lives and album is now more of an exploration of southern music." Earle approaches universal topics like traveling and matters of the heart ("Hard Living", "The Good Life") with the same fervor with which he evokes the bleak loneliness of a Civil War soldier on "Lone Pine Hill".

The Good Life is produced by RS Field (Billy Joe Shaver, Sonny Landreth) and Steve Poulton. The album was recorded (with the exception of "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving") at House of David studios, the legendary room that has hosted sessions with George Jones, Elvis Presley, Neil Young and countless others. Joining Earle in the studio are a cast of all-star players including longtime cohort Cory Younts (Bobby Bare, Jr) on banjo and mandolin, pedal steel player master Pete Finney (Dixie Chicks, Patty Lovelace), bassist Bryn Davies (Patty Griffin, Guy Clark), drummer Bryan Owings (Buddy Miller, Shelby Lynne), keyboardist Skylar Wilson and fiddle player Josh Hedley.

Justin Townes Earle is 25 years old and his age belies his experience. Growing up in Nashville he mis-spent his youth playing in bluegrass/ragtime combo The Swindlers and the louder, more rocking The Distributors and developing some very bad habits. During tours as guitarist and keyboardist ("…and not a very good one," laughs Earle) in his father's band, his problems became untenable and he was fired. Ultimately he cleaned up his act, dropped his self-destructive habits and began to focus on songcraft. "You don't have to be fucked up or torture yourself to write songs," explains Earle, "I used to write a lot, a whole lot, and half those songs I don't even remember. Now, I sit there and I write it and I finish it and I keep it."

With inspirations as diverse as Townes Van Zandt (he was named in honor of the elder Earle's hero), Jimmy Reed, Kurt Cobain, The Replacements, Ray Charles and The Pogues, Justin forged his own brand of American roots music. Going through life with a namesake of Van Zandt's stature cannot be easy for a young songwriter, but Earle takes it in stride," saying, "Anyone who tries to live up to Van Zandt is a fool. I'm honored to carry the name, but if I spent my life trying to live up to it, I'd have a pretty miserable life." Likewise, his father's incredibly acclaimed, prolific career casts a huge shadow, but Justin Townes Earles makes a name for himself by focusing his writing on the personal rather than the political, narrative tales instead of protest. The Good Life melds the qualities of a short story with the lyrical acuity of excellent songs, celebrating grand southern traditions and blowing a fresh breeze across the musical gardens and dive bars of Nashville.

$35.00

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