Prior to the 2010–11 season, the Dallas Mavericks were known as an elite basketball team which couldn’t quite win a league championship. The Mavs had become too predictable, too staid in their formula. “One stud away” was a critique often leveled against them; they needed a uniquely talented role player to help shepherd them to the summit.
They found that player in Tyson Chandler, a 7-foot pogo stick who added an entirely new dimension of defensive proficiency to a team notorious for its “¡Ole!” approach to preventing the opposition from scoring. With Chandler, the Mavs startled the sporting universe by defeating the villainous Miami Heat and winning their first NBA title.
Switching realms from high-tops to harmonicas, Sara Watkins is the Tyson Chandler of the Decemberists.
The McSweeney’s of bands, Colin Meloy’s collection of Oregonians is equally revered and reviled for its grandiloquent, old-tyme, Anglophile shtick, which appeals to fans as uniquely brilliant while striking naysayers as ridiculously twee and annoying. No such critique can be leveled against the band’s January release, The King Is Dead, however. Anchored by “This Is Why We Fight,” one of the strongest tracks put out by any band anywhere so far this year, and drawing admitted inspiration from R.E.M., The King puts on no airs. In large part, it is straightforward acoustic power-pop at its peak. And crucial to the band’s reaching that peak—#1 on the U.S. charts, to be precise—is the assist from guest backing vocalist Gillian Welch. On tour, the honor belongs to Sarah Watkins, a fiddle and mandolin prodigy best known for her work in the family bluegrass act Nickel Creek.
Yet it was Watkins’ self-titled solo debut, one of the great unheralded albums of 2009, which brought her pristine vocals to the fore. There is nothing affected about her; to include Watkins is tantamount to employing a very sensitive bullshit detector, one which governs Meloy’s more highfalutin tendencies beautifully. With Watkins as his foil, Meloy perfectly marries the Decemberists’ polished ambition with the earthy roguishness of his erstwhile band, Tarkio, which made its bones in the pubs of Missoula, Montana. Assuming the King is British, here’s hoping Watkins has lain him permanently to waste.