Ask Colin Meloy about the reference points for the fifth album by his Portland, Ore.-based chamber-pop band and he'll cite a host of obscure folk-rock inspirations from the '60s (among them Nic Jones, Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs, whose 1966 EP inspired the title of this disc). But the truth is that the Decemberists have spent much of their career trying to make a better concept album/rock opera/song cycle than Jethro Tull's 1972 classic "Thick as a Brick," and at last they have succeeded.
As the many song fragments here seamlessly flow together in a delicious, delirious swirl of baroque melodrama, '70s analog synthesizers, elegiac heavy-metal guitars and gorgeous, timeless melodies, Meloy, his bandmates and a roster of guest voices including Robyn Hitchcock, Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) spin an enchanting tale of a woman named Margaret hassled by a demonic animal, a forest queen and a villainous rake (among others) while simply trying to treasure true love with her beau, William.
Yes, it's supremely silly, but the Decemberists know that. More importantly, they know that we know that, and they invite us to laugh along with one witty lyrical bon mot after another while enjoying the bounty of hooks and deft melodic turns on standout tracks such as "The Rake's Song," "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing," "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid" and the title track (though honestly, the disc is best enjoyed as a whole, in classic concept-album fashion).
With sales of their last album "The Crane's Wife" (2006) edging toward 300,000 and a sold-out show last summer at Millennium Park among their accomplishments, the Decemberists have firmly established themselves as one of the most creative forces in modern rock today. It's time for them to finally stop worrying and admit they love the Tull, because Ian Anderson can only wish he was making music this strong today.