In February, the Decemberists found themselves at a place they never expected to be: No. 1 on the Billboard 200. This is a band that makes folksy, literary rock, often with obscure and historical references — rarely chart-topping material.
Tellingly, No. 2 that week was "Kidz Bop 19," the family-friendly anthology of top-40 hits featuring artists like Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and David Guetta.
"It's not something you set your sights on," said drummer John Moen. "I've been playing music for a long time. It wasn't something that I assumed would happen."
But with new album, "The King is Dead," the Portland five-piece band, which performs Monday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, has gone in a more accessible direction than its last outing, "The Hazards of Love," a complicated concept album.
"Hazards" was an ambitious album from the start. Lead singer Colin Meloy told Paste magazine when it was released that it had been originally conceived as a musical, and when that didn't work out, he made it into a rock album. The final product was long — 16 songs in all, including a prelude. And some critics, while praising its lofty goals, labeled it pretentious. Moen doesn't see it that way.
"I like kind of dramatic music," he said.
The new album is billed as a return to simplicity. Meloy said in a statement that it was "an exercise in restraint."
After the heaviness of "Hazards," this was "natural place to end up in," Moen said. "I think there was a little bit of a band agreement that we took those songs as far we could take them. It didn't seem necessary to one-up them in any way."
As with any Decemberists album, Meloy, who writes all of the songs and does some of the demoing, decided the new project's direction.
"We know when he brings it to us the basic tempos and structure of the tune," Moen said. "We get to add our two cents here and there, for sure."
Moen said Meloy had been listening to Neil Young's "Harvest" before they went into production, an album that "you think was recorded in a farm, but actually wasn't."
So, for "The King is Dead," "We actually went to a barn, like a bunch of dum-dums."
The barn was outside Portland on an 80-acre estate surrounded by forest. Moen said they were there for about a month, a typical amount of recording time for them.
But production wasn't easy. At the barn, the band discovered why Young might have chosen the studio to record instead.
"It's not acoustically suited for recording," Moen said. "You end up doing things over and over again."
In the studio, there's also more space for their five instruments, while at the barn they had to place "highly flammable foam" between instruments to isolate their sound.
"We chose more of the hard road, unnecessarily I suppose, but with good intention," he said.
Although Moen said he was surprised to see the album chart so high, it made sense.
"They're catchy little tunes that don't take too much time," he said.
Another one of the treats of "The King is Dead" are guest appearances by folk singer Gillian Welch on seven tracks.
Moen said her involvement, which came late in the game, came out of Meloy's desire to have a strong female co-vocalist on the record.
When the Decemberists go on stage Monday, their show will be as stripped-down as the album.
"No one's getting dressed up in suits," he said, like they did in 2009's "A Short Fazed Hovel" tour, when they performed as the characters referenced on the album.
Because "Hazards" was a concept album, they played it all the way through on that tour.
"To me that was more of an undertaking," Moen said. "Every song segued into one another."
There were also more people on stage: two guest singers doing lead vocals. On this one, Moen said, fans should set aside a couple of hours where they'll hear nine to 11 songs, including most of the new record, some from "Hazards," and a few songs that have been left off from recent tours.
"It's more of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get tour," Moen said. "We wear the shirts we wear all day and try to be entertaining."
If you go
The Decemberists perform Monday at 6 p.m. Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Tickets start at $30. Call 410-715-5550 or go to merriweathermusic.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun