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CD reviews

NY Times News Service

What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, by The Decemberists

What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World

The Decemberists

Capitol

Colin Meloy, the grandiloquent bard at the heart of the Decemberists, plants his silver tongue firmly in cheek at the start of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the group’s new album. By way of a deadpan disclaimer titled The Singer Addresses His Audience — “We had to change some, you know, to belong to you,” he sings, briefing the fervent faithful — the album opens knowingly, making an end run around at least one line of critique.

This is the seventh album by the Decemberists, an indie-folk troupe so closely associated with the earnest creative energies of Portland, Oregon, that the city has declared an official “Decemberists Day” to usher in the album’s release. The previous Decemberists album, The King Is Dead, from 2011, entered the Billboard album chart at No. 1 and yielded a couple of Grammy nominations. More than a few dates on the band’s coming tour have sold out, including a show at the Beacon Theater in New York on April 6.

Still, any throat-clearing about progression in these songs would best be taken in stride. Even Anti-Summersong — a reference to Summersong, a cherished bauble from the band’s back catalog — rings coy in its refusals. “So long,” Meloy chirps. “Farewell/Don’t everybody fall all over themselves.” For a band of such bookish and fanciful repute, this is a dose of puckish self-awareness and strategic misdirection.

On the whole, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World strikes a note of pop concision and maturity, building on what worked on The King Is Dead. Lyrically, there are fewer thistles and minarets and palanquins — and, musically, less digressive excess — than once made up the Decemberists’ trademark style.

Make You Better is about as lean an indie-rock single as the band has produced; it has a near equal, for sheer catchiness, in The Wrong Year. And the retro sheen of Philomena lights a snapshot of adolescent sexual awakening that for Meloy, feels startlingly frank. Along similar lines, but more in character, is Lake Song, in which he recalls a moment when he was “17 and terminally fey,” but ablaze with yearning.

Meloy has said that this album developed unhurriedly, with songs arriving in batches, adhering to no overarching concept. That’s refreshing, as are a couple of songs that acknowledge his perspective as a parent: Better Not Wake the Baby, a dose of sly gallows humor, and 12/17/12, which could be its tonal opposite.

Written shortly after US President Barack Obama addressed the nation following the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the song comes from a shaken place, with Meloy despairing of the news while counting his blessings. What little artifice lurks in the song, which provides this album with its title, manages not to dampen its openhearted sentiment. And if that counts for a change, it’s a welcome one.

— NATE CHINEN, NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Moonlight

Hanni El Khatib

Innovative Leisure

Two Brothers, the last song on the new Hanni El Khatib album, Moonlight, starts out with a slithery, sloppy guitar line, soon buffeted by a bubbly, rumbling punk-funk bass line. “I lost two brothers this year/I hope they died without fear,” he sings, almost flirtatiously, as if his eyes were just barely open. A bit later, the song is disrupted by an interlude of guitars that crank and bend like a choking engine, then disappear just as fitfully.

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