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New Haven Advocate: A Band for the Ages

New Haven Advocate: A Band for the Ages

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Published by: rkearney on Sep 17, 2009
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09/16/2009

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PHOTO COURTESY OFTHE DECEMBERISTSThe Decemberists, coming inOctoberist.A Band for the AgesBehold, ye indie lads—dem Decemberists be comin ta towne, Oct. 6at ye olde Toads Place!byRyan Kearney- October 6, 2005About six years ago, theDecemberists' Colin Meloy was allon his own. A recent transplant toPortland, Oregon, he was a one-manband playing to crowds he couldcount on two hands. In basementbars. During $2 happy hour, no less.It was the nadir of Meloy's youngmusical career, and he wasn't surehe'd ever rebound from it.He had recently moved fromMissoula—he studied creativewriting at the University of Montana—thereby disbanding Tarkio, his alt-country group. In Portland, hestarted from scratch. While looking to form a new band, he took anygig that came his way, including open-mic nights.But performing to sparse and inattentive crowds can be discouraging.And humiliating. And boring. So Meloy, looking to spice things up,began writing and performing lyrically outlandish songs."A lot of it was to entertain myself," he says, while on tour inKansas. "I always thought that nobody would care."At first, nobody did."Writing songs aboutlegionnaires and writing songs in three partsthat I would play acoustically would leave people scratching theirheads," he says. "Playing it to a crowd of maybe 15, and finishing itto a smattering of applause, saying, 'Well, that should teach anybodynot to write a song about legionnaires.'"It was a combative approach, but if his audience wasn't payingattention, why not jab them a little? Meloy figured it was the end of the road, anyway. "It was just a last-ditch attempt to get my lastdemons out," he says. "The writing process was really the thing thatkept me going."Fast forward six years: Meloy is now 30, and his band, theDecemberists, has three critically adored (and relatively successful)albums under its belt, and plays to hundreds of people who come notfor the $2 Pabst, but to hear Meloy, with his nasal, faux-Brit accent,sing lurid, fanciful tales about rapacious pirates, doomed "chimbley"sweeps and virginal infantas.A bloody coup, if you ask him.On the Decemberists' sophomore LP,
 Her Majesty The Decemberists
, Meloy sings, "I was meant for the stage/I was meant for thecurtain," and while the lyrics could easily be attributed to one of Meloy's many fictional characters, there is a truth to those words,too.Just look at the cover of their third and most recent album,
Picaresque
. In an homage to community theatre, accordionist JennyConlee kneels by an old wooden wheelbarrow while guitarist ChrisFunk, all in brown, stands with branches in his hand: a tamarack.Driving the point home, a sketch of a stage and curtains frames thephoto.On-Air Guitar(10/06/05)by Craig GilbertStuck in a Corner With Jeremy Sage!(10/06/05)by Kathleen CeiHold That Tiger(10/06/05)by Christopher ArnottPlaneside(10/06/05)TUESDAY OCTOBER 11(10/06/05)THURSDAY OCTOBER 6(10/06/05)FRIDAY OCTOBER 7(10/06/05)FRIDAY OCTOBER 7(10/06/05)FRIDAY OCTOBER 7(10/06/05)SATURDAY OCTOBER 8(10/06/05)SUNDAY OCTOBER 9(10/06/05)section archives »full listings searchby band nameby music genreby venue nameby regionby dateOpen Mic Featuring Seth Adam and True Margrit[Acoustic/Alternative/Blues/Eclectic/Experimental/Folk/Independent/Jazz/OpenMic/Pop/Rock/Soul]The Space, HamdenHappy Hour[Alternative/Independent/Rock]Cafe Nine, New HavenThe Codetalkers[Blues/Country/Jazz/Rock]Daniel Street, Milford
 
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.
Picaresque
'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
Picaresque
, 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.
Picaresque
manages to combine the strengths of both of those albums."On
Picaresque
," 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
 
, 4 p.m.First Church of Christ Congregational, MiddletownCharlie Sutton, 6 p.m.Cuckoo's Nest, Old SaybrookSoulfly, 7 p.m.Toad's Place, New HavenThe Mammals, 7 p.m.Little Theatre, New HavenRope
 
, 7 p.m.Old Dublin Pub, WallingfordChris Botti, 7 p.m.Mohegan Sun Cabaret, Uncasville

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