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The Decemberists

+ {Colin Meloy}

Named after Russian political ructions that gave Tolstoy the title for his famous unfinished novel, this quintet from Portland, Oregon, are based around the musings of bespectacled frontman Colin Meloy, the quintessential of a 21st century musical magpie. Scholarly in the approach and literary in their intent, The DECEMBERISTS create an expansive sound that shares an ambition and musical sensibility with globe-straddling indie Canucks ARCADE FIRE but are borne more from the lineage of FAIRPORT CONVENTION than any new wave New Yorkers.
The band formed back in 2000, and sprung out of the fertile oasis that is Portland’s art and music scene, among their first musical ventures from Meloy (ex-Tarkio), Chris Funk, Nate Query and Ezra Holbrook was scoring a silent movie. They scraped together enough cash for a debut EP `5 Songs’ and sold it at live shows around their local area and pockets of America’s west coast, plying an early sound which was nearer alt-country than any folksy aspirations they might have had.
Meloy’s fondness for the over dramatic led him down a path of tales of pirates, sea shanties, murder ballads, black humour – part Dickens, part Poe, part Twain, which set them apart from pretty much everyone around at the time.
The group ended up in cahoots with Portland’s own underground cult label Kill Rock Stars for their debut album CASTAWAYS AND CUTOUTS (2002) {*7}. It was by all accounts a spirited affair – a collection of dark bedtime stories one reviewer declared. It also showcased Meloy’s growing songwriting prowess as the band wore their hearts on their sleeves. They followed this with another pair of albums HER MAJESTY (2003) {*6} which was solid but very much more of the same, while PIACARESQUE (2005) {*7} showed greater scope and bite – the stomp and swagger of `Sixteen Military Wives’ saw the band rocking and swaying like never before, while `This Sporting Life’ was like an American BELLE & SEBASTIAN, bittersweet and swoony showing Meloy’s writing fully formed.
THE CRANE WIFE (2006) {*9} remains the band’s crowning achievement; the line-up was now Meloy, Query, Funk, John Moen (who’d superseded Rachel Blumberg) and Jenny Conlee. Receiving critical praise from all corners, it projected the band from indie obscurity, helped in some part no doubt with their shift from KRS to major label muscle Capitol. The centrepieces – two ten minute plus song suites `The Island’ and `The Crane Wife’ were almost prog such was their scale. The black heart of the album however is arguably one of the darkest, finest songs `The Shankhill Butchers’ which tells of a bloody loyalist gang who terrorised 70s Belfast.
The band indulged in a series of concerts with full orchestra in 2007, including a date at the Hollywood Bowl which indicated this was no band of indie underachievers any more.
This wild ambition manifested itself in the joyously overblown THE HAZARDS OF LOVE (2008) {*8} turned out to trump its predecessor in scale, but divided critics with its execution. Inspired initially by the ANNE BRIGGS EP of the same name, it turned into a full-blown folk opera running the gamut from sinister rock songs like the infanticide-fuelled `The Rake’s Song’ to harpsichord-driven tumult of `The Wanting Comes In Waves’. A much underrated gem.
MELOY, meanwhile, had already kick-started a rather low-key and home-based solo career via tour CD EP’s, three of them coming through tributes to “Morrissey”, “Shirley Collins” and “Sam Cooke”; a double-set for Kill Rock Stars: COLIN MELOY SINGS LIVE! (2008) {*6}, featured tracks stretching back to his Tarkio days, and, of course, his twist on songs from his idols – a coda of FLEETWOOD MAC’s `Dreams’ included.
The DECEMBERISTS’ follow up THE KING IS DEAD (2011) {*7} was not as one might expect at first glance a side swipe at ELVIS or a veiled SMITHS tribute, but was instead the band drawing on more mainstream influences (SPRINGSTEEN, R.E.M., et al); they even drew on Peter Buck to provide some licks. It was still a substantial success, hitting the top of the charts in its first week of release, while also reaching the UK Top 30; `Don’t Carry It All’ is probably the best song never to be scribed by RICHARD THOMPSON.
Of course, when you find yourself atop of the charts, why not let your record company exploit the situation by releasing the opportunist in-concert double-set, WE ALL RAISE OUR VOICES TO THE AIR: LIVE SONGS 04.11 – 08.11 (2012) {*7}. All good though.
As literate and as lively as usual, but adding a richer texture to their intelligent campfire-pop, seventh studio set (their first in 4 years) WHAT A TERRIBLE WORLD, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL WORLD (2015) {*8} deservedly put The DECEMBERISTS back on the musical map; and the Top 10 (Top 20 in Britain). An accompanying world tour would surely solidify the ensemble as one class act, especially in soft sing-a-long opener `The Singer Addresses His Audience’, the brassy `Calvary Captain’ and the 50s-flavoured `Philomena’. Not exactly the meat on the bones, this would arrive on the NICK DRAKE-cloned `Lake Song’, the melancholy `Til The Water’s All Long Gone’ (FAIRPORTs-meet-PENTANGLE), plus other Brit-folk reincarnate `Better Not Wake The Baby’ and the HANDSOME FAMILY-esque `Easy Come, Easy Go’. All ‘n’ all, a better sweet ’n’ sour you’ll never taste.
Following on from a 2017 collaborative set for Nonesuch Records (entitled `The Queen Of Hearts’) fronted by English songstress OLIVIA CHANEY (as OFFA REX), The DECEMBERISTS kicked back into gear for 2018’s impressive I’LL BE YOUR GIRL {*8}. Still a high-end chart proposition on both sides of the Atlantic, the 5-piece employed producer John Congleton to flesh-out their tapestry of delights from mere ballad-folk et al into timeless tunes. Meloy’s modernist melancholy approach was reassuring for a band, now, so much in touch with their listeners. But for the meandering multi-minutes of medley, `Rusalka, Rusalka’ / `The Wild Rushes’ (very FAIRPORTs), every track fitted into place. From the yearning opener, `Once In My Life’, to the short ‘n’ sweet title track finale (not forgetting the gothic `Your Ghost’ and the uplifting `Starwatcher’), The DECEMBERISTS should be everyone’s go-to band.
© MC Strong 2011/MR-GFD2 // rev-up MCS Mar2013-Mar2018

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