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by Ryan Kearney - October 6, 2005 About six years ago, the Decemberists' Colin Meloy was all on his own. A recent transplant to Portland, Oregon, he was a one-man band playing to crowds he could count on two hands. In basement bars. During $2 happy hour, no less. It was the nadir of Meloy's young musical career, and he wasn't sure he'd ever rebound from it. He had recently moved from Missoula—he studied creative writing at the University of Montana The Decemberists, coming in —thereby disbanding Tarkio, his alt- Octoberist. country group. In Portland, he started from scratch. While looking to form a new band, he took any gig 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 in Kansas. "I always thought that nobody would care." At first, nobody did. "Writing songs about legionnaires and writing songs in three parts that I would play acoustically would leave people scratching their heads," he says. "Playing it to a crowd of maybe 15, and finishing it to a smattering of applause, saying, 'Well, that should teach anybody not to write a song about legionnaires.'" It was a combative approach, but if his audience wasn't paying attention, 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 last demons out," he says. "The writing process was really the thing that kept me going." Fast forward six years: Meloy is now 30, and his band, the Decemberists, has three critically adored (and relatively successful) albums under its belt, and plays to hundreds of people who come not for 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 the curtain," 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 Jenny Conlee kneels by an old wooden wheelbarrow while guitarist Chris Funk, all in brown, stands with branches in his hand: a tamarack. Driving the point home, a sketch of a stage and curtains frames the photo. Open Mic Featuring Seth Adam and True Margrit [Acoustic/Alternative/Blues/Eclectic/Experimental/Folk/Independent/Jazz/Open Mic/Pop/Rock/Soul] The Space, Hamden Happy Hour [Alternative/Independent/Rock] Cafe Nine, New Haven The Codetalkers [Blues/Country/Jazz/Rock] Daniel Street, Milford PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DECEMBERISTS On-Air Guitar (10/06/05) by Craig Gilbert Stuck in a Corner With Jeremy Sage! (10/06/05) by Kathleen Cei Hold That Tiger (10/06/05) by Christopher Arnott Planeside (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 »
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There's something theatrical indeed about the Decemberists, but it's not 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 wailing instrument mimics a lone beast in the jungle, then the drums rumble in, growing louder and louder until the song breaks into full stride. Over layers of instrumentation, Meloy sings, "Here she comes in her palanquin/On the back of an elephant/On a bed made of linen and sequins and silk." A scene emerges of "five score pachyderm, each canopied and passenger'd," and dukes and duchesses and baronesses and concubines, all tromping across the earth in transport of the veiled infanta. The song feels like an off-Broadway play, and even concludes 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 coal and marigolds" and, "dressed all in corduroy," drowns in the river— also lend the album some of its drama. Yet Meloy insists he's no history buff, noting that many of his songs are based on common archetypes and class generalizations. "If you look closely at these songs, they're not that well-researched," he says. "What I'm going on is what anyone with a passing knowledge would go on." Meloy's antiquated vocab—keep an OED handy while listening—is another matter altogether. He admits to a penchant for obsolete words, though he insists he's no show-off. "My approach to writing is just to milk it all out of the language," he says. "The most exciting thing about writing verse, about writing song lyrics, is the freedom to use language in a melodic way. Either in prose or in poetry, it's always been more interesting to write using the full scope of language." At the recent CMJ Music Mara-thon in New York City, I attended a panel entitled "Image or Ego: Making Your Schtick Stick," in which John Battaglia, founder of Rockstar Image, hijacked moderator duties from the guitarist of Nashville Pussy and lectured a thin crowd on why indie bands need him to create a cohesive, marketable image. When I tell Meloy about it, he's as dumbfounded as I was. "I could honestly 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 at ourselves, to poke fun at the music industry in general. The reason we started doing the photo shoots we do is that the imaging, the tying of image around music, is one of the most absurd and disgusting parts of the business. So part of the whole goal was to tear that down a bit." Furthermore, Meloy correctly points out, the Decemberists "are not entirely tied to bygone eras." The band's oeuvre includes plenty of simple love songs set in contemporary times—songs unadorned by highfalutin language or hammered dulcimers. And that's what makes Picaresque , recorded in a Baptist church in Portland, their most impressive work to date. In the eccentric acoustic balladry of their debut, Castaways and Cutouts , critics saw an obvious successor to Neutral Milk Hotel. Then the band flexed its musicianship on Her Majesty The Decemberists , but in doing so lost some 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 were going to try to nail what we've been trying to do on the last two records, and I think we did that." So what's next for the Decemberists? Meloy's not sure—or he won't say. But he does have one project on his plate: He and his wife, an illustrator, recently inked a deal with HarperCollins to create a children's book about a talking cat in turn-of-the-century Butte, Montana. Meloy certainly has the storytelling chops to write such a book, but for the sake of kids all over America, let's hope he leaves out the rapists, hookers and murderers. And words like "gadabout." The Decemberists perform with Cass McCombs Oct. 6 at Toad's Place, 300 York St., New Haven. 9pm. $18. 624-TOAD,
Zig Zag Collective [Alternative/Classic Rock/Eclectic/Experimental/Hardcore/Independent/Pop/Punk/Reggae/Rock] Rudy's, New Haven Robert Warner [Acoustic] Colonial Tymes Restaurant, Hamden
Sunday Jazz Brunch, 12 p.m. Scoozzi Trattoria & Wine Bar, New Haven Pat Dorn Orchestra, 4 p.m. Mohegan Sun Wolf Den, Uncasville Philippe Bertaud, 4 p.m. First Church of Christ Congregational, Middletown Charlie Sutton, 6 p.m. Cuckoo's Nest, Old Saybrook Soulfly, 7 p.m. Toad's Place, New Haven The Mammals, 7 p.m. Little Theatre, New Haven Rope, 7 p.m. Old Dublin Pub, Wallingford Chris Botti, 7 p.m. Mohegan Sun Cabaret, Uncasville
toadsplace.com. Use our contact form to write to Ryan Kearney. more stories by Ryan Kearney Musical Evolution (05/11/06) New Haven Advocate Best Readers Party With the Smyrk and the Cavemen Go, plus DJ Shaki. May 17 at BAR, 254 Crown St., New Haven. Crying Foul Air (05/11/06) Three weeks ago, one of John Jones' lungs collapsed during a biopsy, and he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive lung disease. The Young and the Restless (05/04/06) Good thing they ordered some pizza. A week earlier, the aldermen on New Haven's Youth Services Committee weren't sure what to do. author archives »
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