Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #11: "June Hymn" -- The Decemberists

Sometimes, your favorite band releases an album that is steeped in the music you've grown to love since starting college. And when that happens, you're powerless to resist.

That's exactly what happened with The Decemberists and I in 2011. After the overblown prog rock of The Hazards of Love, the Portlanders toned it down with The King is Dead, a straightforward country-folk romp that ended up their most accessible record yet. Part '80s R.E.M., part Harvest-era Neil Young, The Decemberists created a record that will, along with Southeast Engine's Canary, always remind me of college and Appalachia as a whole.

The band stripped down to very minimal instrumentation on the two "Hymn" songs of the record -- "January Hymn" and "June Hymn." The former finds frontman Colin Meloy singing of clearing away the snow in the dead of winter. The latter, set on a sunny summer day, is among the prettiest the band has recorded.

Armed with a harmonica and his acoustic, Meloy is backed by Jenny Conlee's wafting accordion and Chris Funk's sparse guitar on the chorus, while Gillian Welch provides singsong harmonies. It's a rustic affair, with the band at its best when they're as pastoral as possible.

All this comes to greatest effect on the song's bridge, at which Meloy's and Welch's voices blend to create some of the sweetest-sounding harmonies created in 2011. Meloy launches into a harmonica solo after, poignant and emotional as ever before.

The Decemberists' music has always had its pretty moments, but it's hard to top the harmonies Meloy and Welch provide. And against the rustic background the rest of the band provides, "June Hymn" becomes one of the most hopeful songs about the summer months. "And years from now / When this old light isn't ambling anymore / Will I bring myself to write / 'I give my best to Springville Hill,'" sings Meloy, painting a vivid portrait of pastoral summer we won't soon forget.

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