For all intents and purposes, ''Her Majesty. . .'' could best be described as the charming older brother to the band's previous outing. And, while being recognizably related to its sibling predecessor, it is an altogether different beast. Present and accounted for are the Victorian literary tropes, the rakish mariners, and the Dickensian downtrodden that slouched their way across the lazer imprinted surface of ''Castaways and Cutouts''; in ''Her Majesty the Decemberists,'' a new cast of characters is introduced as well, giving further depth to the richly bizarre songcraft of the band's bespectacled leading player, Colin Meloy: an aristocratic Jewess, slumming it blindfolded among the exotic avenues of a Chinese bazaar, the coifed and coked-up bon vivants of greater Los Angeles, the writer Myla Goldberg, and a pair of affectionate soldiers, celebrating their comradery among the mortar blasts and trench mud of World War I Belgium. Musically, the band travels over new territory as well, mining deeper into their Beatlepop influences to create a record that is as lush as it is intricate. Strings soar, glockenspiels chime, and analog synths buzz over what the band considers its finest overture into pop song arrangement, all the while keeping intact the folk-pop instrumentation that has defined the sound of the band since its inception: Mr. Meloy returns on acoustic and electric guitars and singing, Jenny Conlee on accordion and keyboards, Chris Funk on electric guitars and sundry stringed instruments, and newcomers Rachel Blumberg and Jesse Emerson, respectively, contribute their drumming and upright bass playing.
Failing students have had such an influential role in shaping rock & roll that it's easy to give the bookworm segment short shrift. Witness the vital contributions from the likes of Ray Davies, the Zombies, and Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Magnum--the kind of smartypants songwriters with whom the Decemberists' Colin Meloy is often compared. The second full-length CD from Portland, Oregon's Decemberists certainly posits Meloy near the top of the current crop of literate indie rockers. Meloy is the brother of author Maile Meloy and a fellow whom one concludes has his own well-worn library card. Eschewing conventional pop-song subject matter, he delves deep into the past for his narratives and even his lexicon, witness "Shanty for the Arethusa," the high-seas opener, and "The Chimbley Sweep," which recalls the Zombies' similarly dark-hued "Butcher's Tale." Though the subject matter is frequently dire and the approach is lyrically erudite, one shouldn't conclude that listening to Her Majesty is the aural equivalent of wading through some dusty tome. Bright pop melodies, smart arrangements, and Meloy's commanding vocals adorn songs that are as inviting as they are astute and evocative. --Steven Stolder
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