The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

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King Decemberist Colin Meloy's love for the heydays of British folk-rock has always served as the foundation on which he builds his crafty, idiosyncratic chamber pop, but on Hazards of Love he's taken that bedrock and built his own version of Stonehenge. A 17-song suite (think one continuous song with track ID's peppered throughout for sanity's sake) about a girl named Margaret, shapeshifters, forest queens, and fairytale treachery, Hazards of Love is ambitious, pretentious, obtuse, often impenetrable, and altogether pretty great. Harking back to the late-'60s/early-'70s offerings from bands like Pentangle, Horslips, ELP, Steeleye Span, and the Incredible String Band, it makes no apologies for its nerdy, prog rock musicality, and convoluted narrative. Meloy, who often cites Shirley Collins, Nic Jones, and Anne Briggs as influences -- Hazards is named after a Briggs' EP which featured no such song -- must have had a vast hard rock/power metal collection to draw from as well, as one can glean melodic cues and structures from Iron Maiden and Rush as easily as they can Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull. On a record with no obvious single (the first instance of the title track comes the closest), it's the album as a whole that needs to engage, and for the most part, the Decemberists have succeeded. The inclusion of guest vocalists Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), who bring some Little Queen-era Heart to the table, as well as bit parts from Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Rebecca Gates (Spinanes), and Robyn Hitchcock help keep the focus off Meloy's affected vocals, but it's the music that drives this beast into the forest. Producer Tucker Martine has beefed up the band's sound even more than he did with Christopher Walla on 2006's Crane Wife, channeling more reverb into the acoustics and a whole lot more brimstone into the electrics, resulting in what is easily the band's best sounding record to date. Hazards of Love won't convert anybody who already wrote the band off as overly precious bookworms with a Morrissey/Victorian ghost story fetish, but fans who have dutifully followed the Decemberists since their 2002 debut get to take home bragging rights this time around.

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