Posts Tagged 'The Decemberists'

This I Swear to All

I’ve seen The Decemberists five times now (six if you count the time me & Beej saw a Colin Meloy solo show in Lawrence): never in the same venue twice. KC, MO (The Uptown Theatre); NYC (Central Park); Lawrence, KS (Meloy Solo @ Liberty Hall); STL (The Pageant); LA #1 (UCLA’s Royce Hall); LA #2 (The Wiltern). Maybe that’s not so strange, but it seems to be, if nothing else, accidentally eclectic (please note I’m aware that many people have seen their favorite bands in numbers that approach or exceed triple digits). Of the venues, St. Louis’ has the best layout. Also of note that I tend to buy multiple tickets & take friends with me to see the shows. I’m perpetually introducing this band to people.

Which and a few Saturdays ago was no exception. Ashley’s new to their music in general the past couple months and Adam came aboard only in 2009 when we threw on “The Hazards of Love” during our drive out west. I warned her “I’ll probably be singing the entire time, I hope that’s okay.” (The word “probably” being an intensity-of-band-love moderating term with no basis in reality and no chance of not being surpassed.)

I’ve been listening to The Decemberists since 2006 and it’s a rare-but-true case where the first song of theirs I ever heard remains my favorite. Sometimes a thing can hit you so hard you kindof absorb it into you and the force of it all is stamped onto your outlook. It just so happens, too, that that’s what “The Engine Driver” is all about to me. It and they’ve been a mainstay on my iPod & in my car ever since. I’m that guy who scours the internet looking for lost tracks and B-sides, obscure performances and band interviews. Who owns four band t-shirts (brown-2; gray-1, maroon-1) and pre-orders their albums from their site so he can get a limited-in-number autographed CD booklet. Who sings along to every word of every song not because he’s sat down to memorize them but because he’s listened to all the songs that many times.

Full disclosure: My musical history is weak-to-totally-abysmally-embarrassingly-bad. I don’t retain song names. It takes me a nice long while to get music in mind and remembered. I can’t tell you the frontman for 90% of the stuff I like, let alone the band’s other members, or who supplied guest vocals or played guitar for two tracks on their last album. I haven’t listened to enough of The Beatles or Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash or The Who or Pink Floyd or Van Morrison or Van Halen (I used to not know the difference) or The Beach Boys or The Doors or Billy Joel or Elton John or Bruce Springstein or The Smiths or The Rolling Stones or anything Phil Spector produced or Motown or blah blah blah these are just the first ones who came to mind. One time an ex-girlfriend and I got in a sizeable and enjoyment-of-day-ending fight in a Pizza Hut when I overreacted to her shock at my not recognizing certain songs. She was right that I didn’t really know anything, I guess I just mishandled the waves of judgment she heaped on me for my sins of omission.

There are multitudes I don’t know and will probably never know, but I do know The Decemberists. They are of course known for their hyper-literate lyrics and exuberantly complex arrangements. That’s why I fell in love with them. I eat $10 words by the handful, and complexity, ambition, and (oh yes) indulgence create an Artistic Bermuda Triangle from which my interests will probably never escape. The Decemberists do it with such a high success rate, too, that I’m perpetually standing back in awe. From “The Mariner’s Revenge” to all three parts of “The Crane Wife” to the cover-to-cover brilliance of “The Hazards of Love,” plus “The Tain” and the deconstructo-playful “I Was Meant For the Stage,” they’re topping themselves every album.

Their new album, “The King is Dead” is so different musically that it’s no different at all. It’s stripped down. It’s simple. The longest track isn’t even six minutes, and most come in at around three. Because there comes a time when the challenge is no longer excess but restraint; when the bigger risk is one of style not size.

“Here we come to a turning of the season,” is the first lyric out of the gate, setting the tone for the album’s lyrical and musical themes. The whole thing has a more American folk feel, and I love how thoroughly a sense of place dominates the album, in that first song, “Don’t Carry It All,” – my favorite track on the album, it perfectly marries the focus on setting with an abundant declaration of the purposes of community – and later in the album on June Hymn.

Opening Act: "Mountain Man"

I love how different “The King Is Dead” is from anything they’ve done before, and yet how comfortably it fits into their canon. There were slight shades of it toward the end of “The Hazards of Love,” the songs alternate between brawlers and bawlers (to borrow a bit from Tom Waits). Songs like “Calamity Song,” “Rox in the Box,” “This is Why We Fight,” and another favorite of mine, “All Arise!” really move and have a propulsion to them; and the “Hymns,” and something like “Rise to Me” remind you how at ease Colin Meloy’s lyrics are, how like a blanket by a fire during a rainstorm the songs feel. Few songs I’ve heard capture the feeling of a season and place – on the earth and in life – like these. They go to different, unique places you don’t normally hear about. And then hey what is “Dear Avery” anyway? Is it about a dog? I think maybe it is but I don’t know.

The concert was wonderful, of course. They dipped into every album and even an EP, and they played seven of the ten tracks from the new one. This may be the first time I didn’t hear “O Valencia,” and it was nice to know they had enough that they didn’t have to.

Here’s the breakdown (by album, not order):

Castaways and Cutouts: “Grace Cathedral Hill”

Her Majesty, The Decemberists: “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” and “Red Right Ankle”

Picaresque: “We Both Go Down Together,” “16 Military Wives,” “The Engine Driver,” and to close the first encore “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”

The Crane Wife: “The Crane Wife 3”

Always the Bridesmaid EP: “Days of Elaine”

The Hazards of Love: “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret In the Taiga)” and c’mon of course “The Rake’s Song”

The King Is Dead: “Don’t Carry It All,” “Calamity Song,” “Rise to Me,” “Rox In the Box,” “Down By the Water,” “June Hymn,” and “This Is Why We Fight”

You know, I’ve said it before and it should perhaps just become my raison d’etre but there’s nothing better than listening to great music with a pretty girl. There were some sightline issues to figure out, but just being able to hold someone’s hand during songs I love is for me an ultimate luxury and comfort.

Just before they played their eight-minute ode to sailors and revenge, Colin told the crowd to practice screaming like they were being eaten by a whale, and as everyone yelled like banshees, I hear Ashley go, “What in the world?” Like I said, she’s relatively new to the music, but soon she followed suit, joined in, and bellowed like a pro. And then what a great final moment it was when they all came back onstage for a second encore to play just and only “June Hymn.” The disparity between the two songs could not have been greater, and it was perhaps a knowing nod to the fact that both are a part of the band’s appeal: the brazenly complex and the utterly simple.

And above all it’s really really great music.



Here Come the Waves…

In less than a week, I’m going to see The Decemberists’ concert here in LA. As readers know, this is my favorite band, I’ve seen them in concert 4 times before, I saw them in St. Louis back in May and LOVED the show. This one will be different for 2 reasons. 1) I’ll be sitting. That’s a bummer for me. I like to stand and bob up-and-down and I like to sing along. Not the same when sitting. 2) The band will be playing the album, “The Hazards of Love” in its entirety, as they have been. Except this time, there is a full-length animation that will accompany it. Here is the trailer for it. I am geeking out like no other. OMG, can’t wait!!!

The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love

The Rock Gods Themselves... The Decemberists  



The Rock Gods Themselves... The Decemberists

Before we begin, you should know I’m not a reviewer of music. The history, the myriad influences every band has, the nature of musical genre – these things exist only as a facile comprehension for me. Please expect little to no depth of thought on the matters. What I am interested in is narrative and the different things that word means to different mediums of art. The narrative of a play is different from a book is different from a film is different from a painting is different from a song (and, one notion I’ve been turning over for a few days: is different from an album?).

The Decemberists have been my favorite band for a while now. They’ve made a name for themselves in the folk prog-rock scene, or rather, they have invented a folk prog rock scene here in the 21st century, and that became their calling. Their songs consistently have numerous movements, their lyrics insist on the beauty of poetics above all. Their music tells stories. They create distinct, startlingly realized characters. They write 12 minute songs about a Mariner’s Revenge called… The Mariner’s Revenge Song. They rock. And singer/songwriter Colin Meloy writes some of the best (love) songs ever. 

Their fifth album, “The Hazards of Love” is a concept album centering on two of folks longest standing archetypes: Margaret and William. They are in love. He is a fawn. There is an evil queen. Sound like a Disney movie a little bit? Well, you’re not far off, but add in a family-murdering kidnapper/rapist and now you’ve got yourself the cast of characters. What do you think is going to happen? Will the fawn and the lady fall in love? Of course, silly, this is music. Will the love be challenged by the evil queen’s evil ways? You know it. Will there be frightening rapids to forge in order to save the damsel? Will she implore the trees to call to her fawn? Will the villain’s dead children rise and take revenge? Why, of why, would we be listening if the answer were no?

This is an epic folk rock opera music spectacular, just to name a few qualifiers. And you can bet that when Epic is invited, his good friend Bombastic is sure to show up. And I’m here to tell you I ate up all 58 minutes of this album. The Decemberists have always been able to infuse their music with a sense of excitement and pulse without losing their footing. This time, though, they’ve erased completely any spaces between folk and rock. A good portion of the music is basic, guitar-thrashing loudness, verging on heavy metal, and because the scope of the story is so massive, none of it feels out of place. In particular, new ground is broken in “A Bower Scene” and “Won’t Want For Love” the music for both of which are reprised in other songs later on the album, where they are driven even further. The band seems energized by this newness. You can feel them enjoying themselves breaking out of any box they’ve been put in or have put themselves in. At the same time, though, this is clearly a Decemberists’ album. They’re not aiming to depart wholly from their own core sound, and one of the best things about the album is how well they were able to blend their own staples into this story. All four parts of the titular “The Hazards of Love” feel utterly at home, as does the hilarious, macabre “The Rake’s Song.” 

The Decemberists have always been comfortable with this type of music. This album isn’t a departure, but an eventuality. It was only a matter of time before songs like the 19 minute long “The Tain” was extended for a full album. And it is, “The Hazards of Love” boasts a daunting 17 tracks, but don’t be fooled. It’s an hour long song with chapter titles. And the arrangement is flawless. Characters have themes, movements are repeated, the pacing is masterful in terms of propelling us from one moment to the next, yet knowing when to stop and smell the lyrics. In fact, it is so perfect, that The Decemberists have to work a bit to keep things from feeling too controlled. So, they clipped all silences between songs, they’ve let each song overflow into the next, spilling and colliding with themselves. They surprise us by adding two female vocalists to play Margaret and the Queen, and they subvert our expectation by having a song sung entirely by children. “The Hazards of Love” is very similar, actually, to Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “There Will Be Blood.” Both are the escalation of existing ideas and motifs, taken to epic proportions. Both are brilliant examples of artists at the absolute peak of their powers taking a big risk by challenging themselves to do something so unlike anything they’ve ever done before it is guaranteed to propel themselves into a new career plateau. Both are darkly hilarious at times. Finally, while both are decidedly the most unique things either has ever done, neither is the best thing they’ve done. Which is not so much a criticism as much as it is a simple statement of a personal preference. 


Welcome to the Forest

But one way they are different: “The Hazards of Love” is much more hopeful than Anderson’s film. The first time I heard the album, I was struck by the largeness of the rock sections, their naked intensity. The band is having a blast blasting, and I loved it too. But then I listened to it again, and again. And again tonight, all the way through, lights off, stereo turned way up. And the epic rock sections are still as powerful as ever, but this album also contains some of the band’s most beautiful love songs. The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All) has one of Meloy’s most transparently passionate statements when he cries: “I Wager All the Hazards of Love.” Also, “Annan Water” for its chorus and the final song, The Hazards of Love 4 (Drowned) and the way its lovers look past any sense of fated doom and instead look directly into each other’s eyes. The sense of calm in Meloy’s voice in the midst of crashing waves is the perfect contradiction. In fact, that’s the best description of the entire album. The songs are so varied in every way and yet so cohesive that it is something of a mind-blowing experience.

So, will you like this album? That depends. Do you like music that is actively, blatantly doing something? Do you like 58 minute concept albums? Do you like the Decemberists in general, and Colin Meloy’s linguistic gymnastics in particular? For me the answers are sure, I’m open to it, yes, and Oh God yes. This album is remarkably easy and enjoyable to listen to. I think many people will find the music so enjoyable that they’ll look forward to returning over and over and over again to pick up all the story elements. 

Sirs and Ladies: a fantastically successful, blissfully enjoyable experiment.

It Has Come to This

March 2019
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