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Best tunes of 2002: #4 The Decemberists “The legionnaire’s lament”

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“I’m a legionnaire, camel in disrepair, hoping for a Frigidaire to come passing by.”

And so begins yet another great track off The Decemberists’ debut album, “Castaways and cutouts”*. I got into this album and the following year’s sophomore album simultaneously, perhaps sometime in 2004, after reading about them in my favourite indie music magazine ‘Under the radar’.

I remember being immediately blown away by the songwriting of Colin Meloy. Being a word geek myself, I loved the wordplay and use of archaic terms and thought it hilarious that I found myself reaching for the dictionary when listening to the lyrics of a pop song, indie or not. But it was not just the choice of words that won me over. It was how Meloy employed them, creating worlds and weaving tales, vivid and imaginative and just so much fun. And then there was the music, indie rock with a folk rock flavour, sampling music from around the world, and not just evoking that of today, but from different points in time throughout history.

The Decemberists have gone on to make eight studio albums in total and a handful of EPs, and successfully navigated the jump from indie to the majors without losing an ounce of what made them great. Every one of their songs is an adventure and you would be hard-pressed to tell me that they are one of those bands whose songs all sound the same.

“The legionnaire’s lament”, despite its title, is an upbeat number. It was the song that first hooked my wife Victoria to the group and is one to which we both love to sing along. And though the words can be esoteric and the specific experience unfamiliar – that of a French Foreign Legion soldier stranded in the desert, his plane shot down in battle in a war over a hundred years ago – the sentiment of missing his love and his home is universal and instantly recognizable.

“If only some rain would fall on the houses and the boulevards and the sidewalk bagatelles (it’s like a dream). With the roar of cars and the lolling of the cafe bars and the sweetly sleeping sweeping of the Seine. Lord I don’t know if I’ll ever be back again.”

Our protagonist is faithfully represented by an angry and forceful strum on the acoustic, the mirage of a jaunty drum beat and playful electric guitar lick, but what really places you in the tune and perfects the feeling of homesickness for Paris is the frolicking accordion. So good.

*”July July” from this same album appeared earlier, at number nineteen, on this list.

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

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Best tunes of 2012: #19 Great Lake Swimmers “Easy come easy go”

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If you’ve never heard of Great Lake Swimmers or listened to their poignant indie folk, you’re indeed missing out. In the past, I would often say about them that when listening to them, they were an amazing experience, but would then go long periods without listening to them and forget about them, until a new album was released and I would fall in love with them all over again. But now that I’ve seen myself amass a bunch of their records as a part of my vinyl collection, I can honestly mark them down as one of my favourite bands, not just a standout amongst the indie folk greats.

Great Lake Swimmers have always been the project of singer/songwriter Tony Dekker. He started out using the name back in 2003 and recorded the self-titled debut in an abandoned grain silo in his hometown of Wainfleet, Ontario. Over the years, he has brought in a number of different musicians to augment his quiet and honest musings on life and the world around him. It felt there was a shift, though, with the band’s fifth album, 2012’s “New wild everywhere”. To his long time collaborator in Erik Arnesen (banjo/guitars), Tony Dekker added fiddler/vocalist Miranda Mulholland, upright bass player Bret Higgins, and Greg Millson on (gasp!) drums.

Yes, the drums were a somewhat new fixture and almost automatically picked up the tempo and mood by default. But I really think it was the addition of Miranda Mulholland that breathed new life into Dekker’s compositions with her backing vocal harmonies and her rollicking fiddle work. Just take “Easy come easy go”, my favourite tune on the album, as an example. Of course, it still features Dekker’s literate and hefty words but it’s more upbeat than anything he had produced up to that point.

“Call it chance, call it choice
Words escape on the breath of your voice
Spinning a magic as they arrive
It’s not fail when it’s a shallow dive”

But don’t get the wrong idea. It is still subdued, classy, and understated. You can almost see Tony and his band just nodding and tapping their toes, performing in button up shirts, done all the way up, sleeves rolled to the elbow, hair slicked or tied back, everything prim and perfect and no-nonsense. Meanwhile, the crowd gathered to watch them, in my mind’s eye, in a broken down barn, on a quiet and warm summer’s night, surrounding the band from an appropriate distance, swaying in abandon on top of hay bales, stomping their feet, and swinging and dipping their partners in love.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.

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Best tunes of 2012: #20 Trampled By Turtles “Alone”

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Memory is funny thing. And as I get older, it’s only getting funnier. Yeah. These days, it’s damn right hilarious.

I have no idea at all how I ever came across Trampled by Turtles and their very excellent 2012 album, “Stars and satellites”. I’ve thought, at points, that they were one of those many bands that I’ve investigated over the years in anticipation of seeing them live at either Ottawa’s Bluesfest or the CityFolk festival. But that can’t be it because although they have played both of those festivals, each of these appearances occurred prior to and well after this album’s release and unfortunately, I missed both.

Then, I wondered if it was because I had gotten caught up the indie folk wave that had taken hold of pretty much everyone around this time, thanks, of course, goes out here to the success of England’s Mumford and Sons and the United States’ answer, The Lumineers. A very possible theory, this.

But the theory that I feel is most likely, is a simple one: They have one hell of a band name, don’t they?

Trampled by Turtles formed in Duluth, Minnesota back in 2003. As far as I can tell, all six members – Dave Simonett. Tim Saxhaug, Dave Carroll, Erik Berry, Ryan Young, and Eamonn McLain – have been with the band since its inception and through the release of all nine of their albums. Since the beginning, they have maintained a hold on their bluegrass and folk underpinnings and man, are they talented.

One of the biggest standouts of their aforementioned fifth album, “Stars and satellites”, is this very track we are focusing on today: “Alone”. It is fresh and at the same time, old school to the nth degree. The rustic, acoustic guitar plucking is quickly joined by Dave Carroll, twanging and bouncing on the banjo and this not-so-torrid pace is maintained for the first minute or so while the frontman, Dave Simonett, finds his feet and then, locates in the darkness, his backing vocalists. Tim Saxhaug on the bass joins in next, in typical booming fashion, then Ryan Young eases his fiddle into the picture and finally, here, the pace explodes into all out ecstasy.

“The summer breezes blow so tall
And the winter nights are cold and so long
In between the falling leaves ooh“

There is a flitting and frittering sound coming from of all these stringed instruments. It is the falling leaves. It is a lonely wind. It is the sound of voices far off. It is dark here, there are plenty of stars in the sky, and if you follow them, you will find your way home.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.