Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Now playing on a continuous loop: The Decemberists.

I’m continuing to write two ongoing posts for this blog, the first one being part two of “3 Impacts” the second one being an attempt to pick up the gauntlet thrown by Rob Grace while he was guest-blogger and run with it like a bat out of the props loft.

Honestly, I don’t feel like posting anything deep today, it’s been a long day and it’s hot up here. So instead, I’m going to briefly champion a band that I love, and try to get you interested in their music to.

Ever wonder what would happen if Edward Gorey started a rock band? The chances are they’d probably sound something like The Decemberists, a quintet from Oregon currently on Kill Rock Stars. Mixing a wide range of influences from sea shanties to rock anthems, The Decemberists combine literate, creative lyrics with evocative music. Both of their albums (“Castaways and Cutouts” and “Her Majesty The Decemberists”) find front man Colin Meloy telling cautionary tales, spinning short stories in verse, singing about famous authors and painting landscapes with his words.

The one thing you won’t find on either album are love songs. Meloy and his band (Jenny Conlee on accordion and piano, Chris Funk on theremin and pedal steel, Nate Query on bass and Ezra Holbrook on drums) clearly aren’t interested in boy meets girl. They’re more interested in toe tapping folk rock sung from the perspective of the ghost of a stillborn premature baby who is in love with the ghost of a chimney sweep or 3/4 ballads about being an actor and treading the boards.

It isn’t just subject matter that sets the Decemberists apart. It’s also the quality of their lyrical content. Take the terrifying nightmare of “Odalisque” which builds from a mournful solo guitar number to a thwomping organ and rock drumming Nick Cave epic:

they've come to find you odalisque
as the light dies horribly
on a fire escape you walk
all rare and resolved to drop

and when they find you odalisque
they will rend you terribly
stitch from stitch til all
your linen and limbs will fall

lazy lady had a baby girl
and a sweet sound it made
raised on pradies, peanut shells and dirt
in the railroad culdesac

and what do we with 10 baby shoes
a kit bag full of marbles
and a broken billiard cue? what do we do?
what do we do?

fifteen stitches will mend those britches right
and then rip them down again
sapling switches will rend those rags alright
what a sweet sound it makes

and what do we do with 10 dirty jews
a thirty-ought full of rock salt
and a warm afternoon? what do we do?
what do we do?

lay your belly under mine
you're naked under me, under me
such a filthy dimming shine
the way you kick and scream, kick and scream

and what do we do with ten baby shoes
a kit bag full of marbles
and a broken billiard cue? what do we do?
what do we do?

lazy lady had a baby girl, and a sweet sound it made

Doom and gloom isn’t all they’re capable of. Their first album includes the exuberant hippies-spinning-around-while-gleefully-dancing number “July, July!” (which, while joyous, is actually about the ghosts of murdered people) and “Her Majesty” contains songs like “Billy Liar” and “Song for Myla Goldberg” both of which will put a grin on your face.

The thing about The Decemberists is that when at their best they combine their lyrics and sensibility with a versatile instrumentation. This synchronicity happens more on the second album than on the first (“Castaways” has a few too many slow guitar songs) but when it happens, you find yourself listening to catchy pop rock about the darkest subject matter imaginable. In this way, The Decemberists are the love child of two of my favorite bands: Belle and Sebastian and Firewater. From Firewater, they get the amalgamation of influences from Kurt Weil to the Beatles to Tom Waits to gypsy music and the dark ironic take on the shaggy dog joke of life. From Belle and Sebastian they get a certain sweetness and folksy attitude towards misery.

If you like neither of these bands, don’t get anywhere near The Deceberists. If you like your rock poetic, intense, dark and fun, check them out.

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