Two fine artists have just released new albums that find each of them exploring more folk and roots-oriented sounds than their previous work. The Decemberists' The King Is Dead and Amos Lee's Mission Bell, released on Jan. 18 and 25, respectively, each have an earthy, acoustic-based sound that fans of thoughtful indie pop will find refreshing, while more roots-oriented fans will no doubt give a thumbs-up to additional artists embracing the Americana vibe. The Decemberists have previously been known for more heady, R.E.M.-style alt-pop with complex forms, and while King still owes a lot to R.E.M.—and indeed features that band's Peter Buck on guitar (as well as Americana favorites Gillian Welch)—The Decemberists have simpled-up their approach considerably and have crafted a winning set of rural-flavored songs that could very well take the band to a new level of popularity. Time, in fact, has predicted that King "could mark their crossover to the realm of important American rock groups alongside the likes of Wilco and the White Stripes." Shows in the U.S. and UK through March, as well as a powerful ally in Stephen Colbert, should help build the momentum.
Amos Lee, meanwhile, has partnered with Arizona alt-roots collective Calexico to forge his new set, Mission Bell. Produced by Calexico founder Joey Burns, the sounds are rangy, atmospheric, and decidedly Southwestern, moving from bare, beautiful acoustic numbers to supple soft rockers, aided by guest appearances including Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson. Against this backdrop, Lee's compelling lyrics weave stories of moving along and letting go, and the pairing is a thing of beauty. Road-song single "Windows Are Rolled Down" is grabbing the ears of listeners, and upcoming live dates and TV appearances are likely to substantially raise Lee's profile in the coming months: He recently did Ellen, The Tonight Show, and NPR's World Café, and he'll be on Tavis Smiley (2/1), Letterman (2/16), and The Early Show (2/18) in short order, while tour stops will include the Boulder Theater, the Paramount in Austin, Irving Plaza in NYC, the Ryman in Nashville, Mountain Stage in West Virginia, Jazz Fest in New Orleans, and many points between. A healthy schedule for a genuinely engaging artist and album.