Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Decemberists - A Rough Guide

From Wikipedia:
"The Decemberists are a rock band from Portland, Oregon, United States.
 The band's songs range from upbeat pop to instrumentally lush ballads,
 and often employ instruments like the accordion, Hammond organ,
 Wurlitzer organ, and upright bass. In its lyrics, the band eschews the
 angst and introspection common to modern rock, instead favoring a
 storytelling approach, ... and often invoke historical events and
 themes from around the world."

The band's work has been "recommended" to me by Amazon for a while.  By
coincidence, in December last year, I noticed a copy of the band's
latest album, "The Hazards of Love", at the library.  I wasn't expecting
much, since not many Amazon suggestions work for me.  It didn't take
long to realise that the whole album was telling a single story.  The
dreaded "rock opera" stigma came to mind, but in my opinion, the band
may have actually pulled it off.  The story is simple yet compelling:
timeless, yet original enough to sustain my interest the whole way
through.  It's still too early for me to call it a classic, but I have
to give the band high marks for having the audacity to release such an
album in an age where attention spans appear to be approaching zero.

The links in the guide below are to YouTube movies.  If the links are
blocked, you can try watching clips at the band's official site:

Also, here's a link to a full concert, from Sydney's Metro Theatre,
January 2010:

The "rough guide" ...

1. "July, July!"
This is an upbeat ode to summer (in the northern hemisphere of course).
It's from the band's debut album, "Castaways and Cutouts" (May 2003).

2. "Leslie Anne Levine"
This is the opening track from "Castaways and Cutouts".  The song
tells a tragic story.

3. "As I Rise"
This is the closing track from the band's second album, "Her Majesty the
Decemberists" (September 2003).  It's a laid-back, country-tinged tune.

4. "16 Military Wives"
On "Picaresque", the band's third album (2005), the band tries its hand
at political commentary.  This is one of the few songs with an official
music video, wherein members of the band play parts in a school-room UN,
critiquing US foreign policy of the time.

5. "The Engine Driver"
Another melodic track from "Picaresque".

6. "O Valencia!"
This is the official clip for a single from the band's fourth album,
"The Crane Wife" (2006).

7. "The Crane Wife 3"
By now the band's story-telling was becoming quite elaborate.  The
fourth album's title track, which was inspired by a Japanese folk tale,
is told in three parts.  Paradoxically, the third part opens the album.
This song was recently covered by Marianne Faithfull, duetting with
Nick Cave.

8. "Summersong"
Another summer-inspired ditty, this one from "The Crane Wife".

By 2009 the band pushed its story-telling mission to the ultimate level,
and released a whole album based on a single over-arching narrative.  In
a nutshell, Margaret gets involved with William, she gets pregnant, and
his jealous and over-protective mother (the Queen) is not pleased.  To
complicate things, a villainous Rake kidnaps Margaret.  Our hero will
risk anything to get her back.  The use of folklore and fantasy help
make the story intriguing and timeless.  The music is great too.

To avoid spoilers, the selections focus on the early part of the album
which set the scene.  Note that on the album the tracks all lead into
each other seemlessly.  Apologies for the ads (alas, that it seems
Google's reason for being).

9. "The Hazards of Love 1"
The track has a great subtitle, which forms part of the chorus: "the
prettiest whistles won't wrestle the thistles undone".  Colin Meloy has
an interesting way with words.

10. "A Bower Scene"
A more rocking track continues the story, where we find out Margaret
is pregnant.  Guest vocalists are used to play the female roles.

11. "Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)"
Separated from William, Margaret tells us that she "may swoon from
all this swelling, but I won't want for love".

12. "The Rake's Song"
A sort of "murder ballad", this song introduces us to the villain of
the piece, a not-to-disappointed recent widower who tells us how he
coolly disposed of his unwanted offspring.

It looks like someone has posted all the songs on YouTube, so if you
like what you've heard so far, you can check out the rest.  Make sure
you play them in the proper order though.