With the one-off “concept album” experiment from The Decemberists that was 2009’s Hazards of Love now in the books, the band turns again to the hayloft-indie space while claiming that three-minute pop songs are more difficult to put together than conceptual magnum opuses. Were he alive, Bach might not agree, and there was a lot about Hazards that was simply too cool for school in a Zeppelinized-steampunk kind of way, but whatever. The yodeling fadeout that closes “Calamity Song” is pressed against the sort of open-window drivetime mid-tempo guitar urgency native to REM, which is where we should mention Peter Buck, who guests on three of the songs. REM can’t be referenced merely in passing, though; pretty much the whole thing is a countrified Fiddle Faddle that many people will assume is Arcade Fire attempting to resurrect 1980s Atlanta (jump-off single “Down by the Water” flirts dangerously close to ripping off “The One I Love”). Departures include a grog-and-whaling accordion/fiddle break in the wry mining storyteller “Rox in the Box”; a nod to Jimmy Buffett in the sedate, Christmasy “January Hymn”; and some not-unlikeable NASCAR bluegrass (“All Arise”).
A- —Eric W. Saeger