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The Decemberists: Of Ambition And Arias

The Decemberists are a rock band from Portland, Ore., whose approach can be somewhat anachronistic: They like Old English diction, and have written songs featuring "chimbly sweeps" and "barrow boys." With their latest record, they fast-forward things a bit — it's a classic, 1970s-style concept album. You might even call it a "rock opera."

Once upon a time, albums were more than just iPod playlists of atomized MP3 files. They were worlds you could disappear into, with vague, largely incomprehensible storylines that you could ponder for hours while playing air guitar in your bedroom. Clearly, The Decemberists remember those days.

The Hazards of Love is the name of the new Decemberists record, and it features a resplendent cast of characters whose stories are told in elaborate prog-rock fashion. Themes are stated and returned to, and guest singers join bandleader Colin Meloy to enact various parts. It's somewhere between a do-it-yourself indie-rock musical and a full-blown rock opera, though when Shara Worden of the group My Brightest Diamond becomes the wrathful monarch, it starts recalling Wagner, or at least the Acid Queen bit from The Who's Tommy.

But the secret weapon of The Hazards of Love is guitarist Chris Funk, who fills the record with nearly every color a plucked or strummed string can provide. He plays hammered dulcimer and autoharp, pedal steel and banjo, in addition to heavy electric guitar. There are also synthesizers, harpsichords, orchestral string arrangements and even a children's choir, singing the part of the vengeful ghosts.

Sure, there's some camp in the presentation. But the love of all the musical tropes here is so sincere that even the most overblown moments feel emotionally real. There probably won't be any hit singles off The Hazards of Love; the record is less about pop hooks than about recapturing the idea of an album as a whole experience, one that you take time to savor, like a full-course meal. Maybe the record will launch the musical equivalent of the slow food movement. If it does, you can sign me up.

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