Best tunes of 2002: #19 The Decemberists “July! July!”

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Sit right back on that comfy white leather sectional there and let me tell you the tales of all my previous dwellings. Not where we currently sit in the lovely home that was built for us out in the suburbs over twelve years ago, where we saw a community rise up around us, displacing wetland flora and fauna and welcoming the usual suburban wildlife.

No. I’m talking about the litany of apartments, starting with the two bedroom unit on the third floor of a low rise, where the radiator heating never truly worked and our landlords would hand us electrical heaters to supplement. And before that, the low rent, basement apartment in which we could always hear our landlords yelling at each other above us. The beautiful but tiny, tiny, tiny one in Sandy Hill (an area that is a mix of students and embassies) that was our first apartment in Ottawa, where my wife wrote countless papers for her masters degree and I tried not to get in her way.

And prior to that, a one-bedroom in Ronces in Toronto, the only apartment in which I lived alone, well, not alone, truly, because my cat Lucy spent more time there than I did. Then, there was the two-bedroom, railroad style apartment that I lived in for two years at Bathurst and St Clair with two different roommates, Ryan and Chrissy, consecutively, not concurrently. And I’ll stop this list with Armenia, the nickname me and my roommates gave the three-bedroom apartment that we all lived in just off campus to finish off our degrees in at York University. That place that saw more than its fair share of parties, laughter, and heartbreak.

“July! July!” is track three on The Decemberists’ brilliant debut album, “Castaways and cutouts” and it is, reportedly, Colin Meloy doing what I just did there but in song form and only speaking about one of the places in which he lived.

“This is the story of the road that goes to my house
And what ghosts there do remain
And all the troughs that run the length and breadth of my house
And the chickens how they rattle chicken chains“

Colin Meloy has said that the song is about the place he was living in at the time of writing for this first album and that the place was an old slaughterhouse. That he imagined it was haunted by the ghosts of the chickens that had lost their lives there and that he wrote about it could be a nod to Neutral Milk Hotel, a band with whom The Decemberists were certainly oft compared in their early days, and their song, “Ghost”, off “In the aeroplane over the sea”. But Meloy and his Decemberists weren’t ever just about simple mimicry. They have always added their own touch and twist to the legends and the traditions that they mined.

“And we’ll remember this when we are old and ancient
Though the specifics might be vague
And I’ll say your camisole was sprightly light magenta
When in fact it was a nappy blueish grey“

Here, Meloy plays on memories and how we distort them over time. Our lense on the past changes with the winds of time, rosy and cheerful or black and bleak, depending on our mood or character. Meloy is obviously of the former, choosing the ‘sprightly’ remembrance over the ‘nappy’. He and his players accompany the words with only peppy drumming for the first few bars and then the organs kick in for a wild dance. Yeah, for a song about chicken ghosts and gut shot, crooked French Canadians, it’s a chipper track, perhaps the most upbeat track on the album, and all tied up neatly in a bow at just under three minutes.

Enjoy your Saturday all!

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.


Live music galleries: The Decemberists [2016]

(I got the idea for this series while sifting through the ‘piles’ of digital photos on my laptop. It occurred to me to share some of these great pics from some of my favourite concert sets from time to time. Like my ‘Vinyl love’ series, these posts will be more photos than words but that doesn’t mean I won’t welcome your thoughts and comments. And of course, until I get around to the next one, I invite you to peruse my ever-growing list of concerts of page.)

The Decemberists, live at Bluesfest 2016

Artist: The Decemberists
When: July 13th, 2016
Where: Claridge stage, Ottawa Bluesfest, Lebreton Flats Park, Ottawa
Context: Back in 2005, I convinced my wife to squeeze in a concert by a band I had recently gotten into on our spring trip in to Toronto to visit her mother. That show by The Decemberists at The Phoenix Concert Theatre would end up being one of Victoria’s favourite concerts, despite having only heard a handful of their songs beforehand, and it goes without saying it was high up on my list as well. It would be just over a decade before I got to see them again live (though I did catch a Colin Meloy on a solo set in the interim). The lineup had changed some in the years since and the band had also since jumped to a major label and gained a much wider audience. The quality of their music, however, has never wavered, nor has their live show. In fact, both of the shows in question ended with the very same song, “The mariner’s revenge song”, and included the requisite audience participation, though the latter show involved some props (see last photo). Being on a major comes with bigger budgets, right?
Point of reference song: Make you better

Nate Query of The Decemberists rocking the bass
John Moen of The Decemberists (and the various stage props)
Colin Meloy of The Decemberists
Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists
Chris Funk of The Decemberists
John Moen and Colin Meloy of The Decemberists
Nate Query on the upright
Chris Funk of The Decemberists on banjo
Jenny Conlee on the accordion
Colin Meloy and his shiny guitar
The Decemberists being swallowed by a giant whale


Best tunes of 2011: #7 The Decemberists “This is why we fight”

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Let me get this out of the way right now. The Decemberists are one of my absolute favourite bands to come out of this young century.

I got into the Portland-based indie folk five-piece right around the time that they were prepping to release their third album, the very excellent “Picaresque”, in 2005. Incidentally, that album would ultimately become their final release as a true indie band, given that they signed to Columbia near the end of that same year. Any fears that they would sell out, though, were immediately dispelled when their debut album on the major label was released. Indeed, I’m sure their fans breathed a sigh of relief (as I did) while listening to the three part title track inspired by a Japanese folk tale and the twelve minute prog-folk-rocker that riffed on the themes from a Shakespeare play. They then followed that up with an album that was originally meant to be staged as a musical but was ultimately found impossible to mount.

Two years later, in the first few days of 2011, we saw Colin Meloy and the group release what is possibly their most accessible album to date and two weeks later it incredibly found its way at the top of the U.S. album charts. “The king is dead” is different from the albums that came before it in that it feels more singular in sound, taking for its focus a healthy steeping in Americana and the American folk traditions. Meloy has said that he had the band R.E.M. at the front of mind while writing the material. In fact, Peter Buck makes several appearances on the album, along with singer/songwriter Gillian Welch.

Neither of these appear on our track for today, the album’s penultimate track, “This is why we fight”, but that doesn’t mean their presence isn’t felt. It rocks a little harder than most of the other songs on the album, a driving drum beat pushing the thing forward, holding at arms length the opposing guitars, on the one side dark and foreboding and the other hopeful and jangly, and what sounds like harmonicas, though oddly distorted, pushing its sad, sad agenda. And of course, I can’t speak about The Decemberists without mentioning the lyrics, though here Meloy’s words are less esoteric and doesn’t necessarily have you reaching for the dictionary as often. Instead, he lists the many reasons why it may be necessary to take up arms, leaving lots of room to interpret how literal to take things.

“This is why
Why we fight
Why we lie awake
This is why
This is why we fight
And when we die
We will die
With our arms unbound”

Even in the video, the teens living out a “Lord of the flies” existence in a post-apocalyptic world, we see the build up and the “why” of the fight but it all goes to black before the two sides come blows, leaving the terms of the conflict up to the imagination. Pure awesome.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.