(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. Until I get around to the next one, I invite you to peruse my ever-growing list of concerts page.)
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”
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.
After The Decemberists’ relatively recent hiatus from recording and touring, I found myself very surprised to learn in January of this year that a new album was forthcoming so soon after their seventh release. Indeed, it had felt like “What a terrible world, what a beautiful world” had just been released, when in fact it was actually three years before. My initial miscalculation was likely because I had just seen the group the previous summer and they were still out supporting that previous album. So yeah, surprised I was but it was even greater when I heard the first single, “Severed”.
Much has been made in the press and otherwise about the Portland-based indie folk group’s change in sound on their latest, this album, “I’ll be your girl”. Frontman Colin Meloy, himself, has admitted that they drew from their teenaged crushes on Depeche Mode and New Order when they decided to add synthesizers to their already large arsenal of instrumentation for this album. Indeed, at first listen, it is almost jarring to a long time listener but the more you listen, the more you realize that this is still the Decemberists you know and love. And really, the band has never shied from experimentation and dabblings in different styles and genres. They’ve done the sea shanties, twee and indie pop, prog rock, and run the folk gamut from American to British to Eastern European traditions. Synth pop à la Decemberists is the welcome and next logical progression, no? Just nod yes.
The Decemberists are also known for their songwriting, especially the clever lyrics by Colin Meloy, and this is still very much a touchstone of this album. He’s been less esoteric and more accessible on recent works and here, he continues the trend, though there are still a few moments that will please longtime fans and cause casual listeners to scratch their heads. What I love about this album, though, like a few others we’ve already seen on this list, is that our songwriter addresses the madness that seems to be increasing around him but chooses to face it with positivity rather than hatred and anger. It’s an album that makes me happy whenever I put it on and I think that’s a great reason for it to be considered the best album of the year.
Have a listen to the three selections below and perhaps they will make you happy as well. However, if cheeriness is not the main quality by which you choose your favourite album of the year, I’d love to hear what you’ve got at the top of your list in the Comments section after the post.
“Sucker’s prayer”: This first pick is actually an exception to the upbeat rule of the rest of the album. I mean, really, just listen to the chorus: “I’ve been so long lonely and it’s getting me down. I wanna throw my body in the river and drown.” It’s so over the top that we know this can’t possibly by Colin Meloy singing autobiographically. It’s also thematically prototypical to what we used to imagine Country music to be, down in the dumps where nothing can go right. And the music is right there with it, downtrodden blues buried deep within Americana piano tinkles and sustained organ. And that aforementioned chorus begs to be sung along with, come on in, have a drink, cry a little, and join us in prayer.
“Severed”: As I mentioned above, this one here was the first single and teaser we got from this new album and what a shock it was to some. I admit myself to playing it and still being surprised even after hearing the whisperings on the internet. My wife Victoria was sitting across the living room on her tablet and asked “Is that The Decemberists?!”. I could only nod and play it again. The synthesizers set the tone right from the start and throw you off the scent but once you find it again, you definitely remember why you love this band. It’s a song that rocks. It roars along like a black car on an old deserted road, its bright lights laying down the path on its suicide mission.
“Once in my life”: This final selection was the second single released off the album and also its opener. It begins with Meloy singing solo to the strum of his guitar, making a plea to universe not unlike that of Morrissey in a certain Smiths classic. Yet this is The Decemberists and things pick up from there, the bass slides in, backing vocals join in, instruments are added, including the surprising but welcome synthesizers, and the piece becomes joyful. The accompanying video is one that continues the theme of hope and it was while reading Colin Meloy’s statement upon it that I learned his son Hank is autistic. In his words: “When I’m out in public with Hank, I’m acutely aware of the world’s attachment to social and behavioral norms; in these situations, Hank’s otherness can suddenly be put in stark relief. Through the lens of Jacob’s [the video”s protagonist] joyful and defiant movement in Autumn’s video, we see a man shrugging off the constraints of an unaccommodating and judgmental world and truly reveling in his body and mind.” Yep. I need say no more.
In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list: