If you are one of the 75,000-plus people who bought Neutral Milk Hotel's last album, the first thing you will think when you hear the Decemberists is this: Damn, that guy sings like Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel. If you are like me, you will likely continue thinking that, and when the Decemberists' new album, Her Majesty the Decemberists, is over, you'll immediately put on a Neutral Milk Hotel record and go back to wishing they'd come out of semi-retirement. But to the more than 292 million Americans who have no earthly idea what Jeff Mangum sounds like, or to those who went ahead and got a life since that last NMH record came out in 1998, you'll have an infinitely better time listening to Her Majesty than I did--and, in fact, I recommend it.
Aforementioned sound-alike Colin Meloy is a folky belter of the kind you might imagine in the role of Revolutionary War-era troubadour, and that's not only because the band's dressed up that way in its publicity photos. The effect is encouraged by in-character epic "Shanty for the Arethusa," haunting the album's beginning in a History Channel shipwreck-special kind of way. If that sounds self-conscious for a bunch of modern-day kids from Portland, Oregon, just wait for the seven-minute "I Was Meant for the Stage," which tumbles from a haggard ode to an old stage queen into mayhem in the orchestra pit. As if to compensate for the more overwrought numbers and quasi-historical ballads ("Chimbley Sweep" even includes sung dialogue), some of the Decemberists' songs more credibly pair familiar indie-rockisms (the melancholy of a mailroom job, the disgustingness of Los Angeles) with poppy keyboard backdrops fit for Rufus Wainwright or Belle and Sebastian. Acoustic guitar makes way for bells, strings, horns and accordion, and here and there, schmaltzy '70s AM-radio flourishes add an ironic smirk to offset the endemic seriousness of Meloy's vocal. If upping the irony quotient pulls those theatrics into even more confusing territory, it's really the only barrier to enjoying this varied record. That is, if you haven't heard Neutral Milk Hotel.