There's something theatrical indeed about the Decemberists, but it'snot just the album art or the costumes they don for press photos.Meloy, who grew up doing theater, writes songs fit for the stage.
's opener, "The Infanta," is a perfect example. A wailinginstrument mimics a lone beast in the jungle, then the drums rumblein, growing louder and louder until the song breaks into full stride.Over layers of instrumentation, Meloy sings, "Here she comes in herpalanquin/On the back of an elephant/On a bed made of linen andsequins and silk." A scene emerges of "five score pachyderm, eachcanopied and passenger'd," and dukes and duchesses and baronessesand concubines, all tromping across the earth in transport of theveiled infanta. The song feels like an off-Broadway play, and evenconcludes with an operatic tenor holding a long, wavering note.Naturally, the historical setting of "The Infanta" and tracks such as"Eli, the Barrow Boy"as depicted on the album cover, he "sells coaland marigolds" and, "dressed all in corduroy," drowns in the river—also lend the album some of its drama. Yet Meloy insists he's nohistory buff, noting that many of his songs are based on commonarchetypes and class generalizations. "If you look closely at thesesongs, they're not that well-researched," he says. "What I'm going onis what anyone with a passing knowledge would go on."Meloy's antiquated vocab—keep an OED handy while listening—isanother matter altogether. He admits to a penchant for obsoletewords, though he insists he's no show-off. "My approach to writingis just to milk it all out of the language," he says. "The most excitingthing about writing verse, about writing song lyrics, is the freedom touse language in a melodic way. Either in prose or in poetry, it'salways been more interesting to write using the full scope of language."At the recent CMJ Music Mara-thon in New York City, I attended apanel entitled "Image or Ego: Making Your Schtick Stick," in whichJohn Battaglia, founder of Rockstar Image, hijacked moderator dutiesfrom the guitarist of Nashville Pussy and lectured a thin crowd onwhy indie bands need him to create a cohesive, marketable image.When I tell Meloy about it, he's as dumbfounded as I was. "I couldhonestly give a fuck if what we do amounts to more records sold,"he says. "A lot of what we do is in-jokes and efforts to poke fun atourselves, to poke fun at the music industry in general. The reasonwe started doing the photo shoots we do is that the imaging, the tyingof image around music, is one of the most absurd and disgustingparts of the business. So part of the whole goal was to tear that downa bit."Furthermore, Meloy correctly points out, the Decemberists "are notentirely tied to bygone eras." The band's oeuvre includes plenty of simple love songs set in contemporary times—songs unadorned byhighfalutin language or hammered dulcimers.And that's what makes
, recorded in a Baptist church inPortland, their most impressive work to date. In the eccentricacoustic balladry of their debut,
Castaways and Cutouts
, critics sawan obvious successor to Neutral Milk Hotel. Then the band flexed itsmusicianship on
Her Majesty The Decemberists
, but in doing so lostsome of its warmth.
manages to combine the strengths of both of those albums."On
," he says, "I think we knew going into it we weregoing to try to nail what we've been trying to do on the last tworecords, and I think we did that."So what's next for the Decemberists? Meloy's not sure—or he won'tsay. But he does have one project on his plate: He and his wife, anillustrator, recently inked a deal with HarperCollins to create achildren's book about a talking cat in turn-of-the-century Butte,Montana. Meloy certainly has the storytelling chops to write such abook, but for the sake of kids all over America, let's hope he leavesout the rapists, hookers and murderers. And words like "gadabout."
The Decemberists perform with Cass McCombs Oct. 6 at Toad'sPlace, 300 York St., New Haven. 9pm. $18. 624-TOAD,
Zig Zag Collective[Alternative/ClassicRock/Eclectic/Experimental/Hardcore/Independent/Pop/Punk/Reggae/Rock]Rudy's, New HavenRobert Warner[Acoustic]Colonial Tymes Restaurant, HamdenSunday Jazz Brunch, 12 p.m.Scoozzi Trattoria & Wine Bar, New HavenPat Dorn Orchestra, 4 p.m.Mohegan Sun Wolf Den, UncasvillePhilippe Bertaud