Sunday, February 14, 2010

The New Adventures of Sunday Music: The Decemberists

It's time to pull myself away from Mighty Boosh on demand and slap on my ol' blogger hat. Writing yields more writing I find, and I'm in serious need of writing motivation. And so, on with the Sunday Music! My top five this week: The Decemberists, Dame Darcy, Big Mama Thornton, The Goofus Five, and Van Dyke Parks.

The Decemberists dominated because I finally got around to watching an old KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic video of theirs that had been waiting in my iTunes podcast queue behind a dozen TED Talks and BBC documentaries. And as such, I found myself revisiting The Hazards of Love, which had been in my short list of albums of the year (but lost out, as you can read here in the FW Reader). So I'm beyond fashionably late to the Hazards party, but the point of these Sunday Music pieces have been as much about exploring new music as closely examining old favorites.

The Decemberists w/ Shara Worden - "The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid."

Both Worden and lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy seem to be having monitor issues here (you know those expressions all too well if you've ever suffered a bad stage), but Worden pulls it together to deliver those powerful soaring vocals that pushed the album up my top 2009 list (admittedly, a very short list).

The Decemberists have a lot of what I look for in a band. The current line-up is full of talented musicians, all real pro's at their instruments. (Keyboardist Jenny Conlee alone deserves more credit than she usually receives.) They take risks. Even when they repeat themselves ("The Chimbley Sweep" -> "The Mariner's Revenge Song"), the second attempt aims farther than the original and is usually better crafted besides. This is a band who - on the whole - learns from their mistakes and will probably leave behind a solid body of work, regardless of what the naysayers have been saying since first complaining that Picaresque failed to sound like Castaways and Cutouts.

Sadly - like those naysayers - what I view and what the band views as their mistakes don't always match up. I stuck by them through the Crane Wife debates of 2006/2007. Where others focused on the prog and arena rock, I clearly heard the sounds of Pentangle, Fairport, and my other British folk favorites - influences on The Decemberists that I had always heard and that Meloy himself was then drawing attention to through interviews. Still, I had to agree, I didn't much like the intro to "The Island" either, and it seemed clear to me that the band was writing music to be performed in front of the larger crowds they were growing used to. Certain subtleties of tone, harmony and rhythm don't translate well all the way back to the cheapseats, and the band seemed to be turning toward repetitive rhythms and those powerful sustained chords of the least interesting subgenres of rock.

With this album, I'm finally ready to admit it. Aside from a few interludes, Hazards relies far too heavily on the arena rock, butt rock, or whatever you want to call it. Witness, for example, what they do with what could be a quite lovely folk melody in "Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)."

Becky Stark's vocals are perfect for the song, but the accompaniment mostly contrasts the four-to-the-floor thump of the verses with that barely syncopated rock rhythm (which for unknown reasons I forever associate with the arty side of 90s alternative). The final product works, but it feels too simple, like they rushed into the arrangement. We get an ABABCBBBB... where the C is all to brief, where we're clearly meant to want to sing-along through every chorus, and where the themes don't really develop. These are hard things to do (and things I beat up myself over every day), but the band had all the time they needed to prepare the album. At some point someone should have said, "As fun as this is, we're ending the song exactly where it started. It's just "O, Valencia" again. Let's see if we can do something else right here."

I'm mostly saddened by all this because 1) there are some otherwise great songs on the album and 2) with all the instruments and talent at their disposal, there's really no reason for them to always rely on overdriven guitars to give a song a sense of power or for the melodyless guitar shredding solos that spot the album. One of the best aspects of British folk rock from the 60s and 70s was that how it involved a wide variety of instruments, to the point that the first decade of bands each invented its own sound and textures. (By the end of the 70s, things settled down and a single uniform folk rock sound developed.)

So, The Hazards of Love: addicting enough that I'm still listening to it but in some ways a disappointment. Still, I find myself looking forward to whatever the band attempts next.

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