The Decemberists – Phases and stages
The ailing orphans and shifty merchants of Charles Dickens. Sluts named Heather and dumb jock boyfriends, sliced to ribbons apres premarital sex in horror movies. Archetypal characters are a staple of the arts: Remember the classic villain-damsel-hero “you must pay the rent…but I can’t pay the rent” melodrama? Of course you do. Archetypes endure.
Colin Meloy, leader of Portland, Oregon, quintet the Decemberists, talks a lot about archetypes. For a decade, they have served him well. His band’s songs may be more ambitious than any simple routine conducted with an all-in-one moustache/hair ribbon/bowtie fashioned from a sheet of folded paper, but with their tales of double lives and broken hearts, they have a similar, far-reaching appeal.
Even a cursory survey of the crowd at a late summer outdoor show at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo confirms this, as slender adolescents in thrift store finery and Hot Topic accessories weave between public radio listeners on blankets hosting gourmet picnics. No matter the age, social standing, or thickness of eyeliner, the majority recognize and sing along with “16 Military Wives”, “Song For Myra Goldberg” and “The Legionnaire’s Lament”, favorites plucked from the albums Castaways And Cutouts (2002), Her Majesty, The Decemberists (2003) and Picaresque (2005).
There are unfamiliar selections this evening, too: The live debut of the bubbly “The Perfect Crime #2”, and “O Valencia!”, a tale of rival gangs and star-crossed lovers. Introducing the idyllic “Summersong”, Meloy mentions that these new tunes can be found on The Crane Wife, the Decemberists’ forthcoming album “on this little indie imprint out of L.A.” It’s a joke, of course; The Crane Wife, released October 3, is the band’s first album for Capitol Records.
Archetypes can be subverted to great effect. This is true both of characters within tales and the artists who animate them. Part of what has made the Decemberists — Meloy, keyboard and accordion player Jenny Conlee, multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, drummer John Moen, and bassist Nate Query — so appealing to a wide range of fans is that even as the band has progressed through recognizable career phases they have not fit cozily into the boxes marked indie rock, folk, or singer-songwriter.
With The Crane Wife, they have flipped the script dramatically. You can still find the odd soldier or sailor loitering around, but there is a discernible absence of chimney sweeps, geishas and whores. Writing the songs, recording the album…every major aspect of the group’s road-tested creative process got turned on its ass.
The result? Their most ambitious, fascinating album to date. The Crane Wife is not just another chapter in the popular, long-running serial called the Decemberists. This is a whole new epic that just happens to feature the same core creative team — and some welcome new cast and crew, too.
Colin Meloy was once introduced to a Seattle audience as the love child of the Greek god Zeus and supermodel-turned-actress Andie MacDowell. Not true. (There was a rumrunner on his mother’s side of the family tree during Prohibition, but that’s about as colorful as Meloy’s genealogy gets.) However, like the Sex, Lies & Videotape star, Meloy is one of the better-known individuals to have called Montana home.
Growing up in Big Sky Country, Meloy had very clear opinions about music. “I hated country growing up,” he remembers. “Country was anathema. Country was what the hicks and ranchers — the people I was afraid of — listened to. It was Clint Black and Garth Brooks. Fuck country, I was into college rock bands: Depeche Mode and Husker Du and the Replacements,” he adds with an air of mock superiority.
But in 1990, a college rock band showed the little know-it-all the error of his ways. “Yo La Tengo put out Fakebook, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute! What is this band doing?’ After President Yo La Tengo — which had an eight-minute feedback jam that I loved — their next record is all Gene Clark covers and pedal steel and upright bass? That was the moment where I went, ‘Maybe country is OK.’ Then I discovered Uncle Tupelo after that, and saw the connection between the Replacements and country music…and it grew from there.”
Meloy did not become a cowboy, but he did the next best thing: He started a country-rock band, Tarkio, featuring banjo, fiddle, pedal steel and mandolin. The obligatory lyrical references to drinking whiskey were offset by couplets such as, “Albert Camus said living is anguish/But don’t dare let those bastards get you down.”
The quartet was soon crowned Best New Band of 1998 by their local alt-weekly the Missoula Independent. Over the course of their five-year run, Tarkio recorded one full-length, I Guess I Was Hoping For Something More (1998), plus assorted EPs, demos and live-in-studio tracks, all of which were reissued last year on the double-disc anthology Omnibus.
Meloy’s fascination with country music, while relatively short-lived, helped him identify what would eventually become one of his creative strengths. “The Derailers’ Reverb Deluxe has stuck with me as a great contemporary country record,” he says. “That whole record is all about either you feel bad because you cheated on your girlfriend and now she won’t take you back, or she treats you bad but you keep coming back. It’s all one of those two. But there’s something so amazing about that, that got me excited from a songwriting standpoint. These archetypes have lasted for generations and generations, but they still feel vital and powerful.”
While Tarkio took up plenty of Meloy’s time, and even sparked some major-label interest (the liner notes of Omnibus reproduce a polite 1998 rejection letter from Arista Records), it was not his sole priority. There was also the small matter of completing his higher education, which included studies at the University of Oregon (in Eugene) as well as a semester abroad studying theater history in England.