Band of the Day

2012.03.23

The Decemberists

Portland, Oregon's 800 pound gorilla of literary folk rock
I'm a legionnaire, camel in disrepair, hoping for a frigidaire to come passing by.
lyrics from The Legionnaire's Lament

The Decemberists first formed in 2000 when Montana-native Colin Meloy moved to Portland and met fellow founding members Nate Query and Jenny Conlee. The group released their debut EP 5 Songs in 2001 then released their debut full-length Castaways and Cutouts on Portland based Hush Records. The album helped them find quick success among independent music circles for the band's quirky obsession with history and maritime themes, highly accessible song writing and theatrical, engaging live shows. Led by singer and chief songwriter Colin Meloy, the band's profile rose further with the release of 2003's Her Majesty the Decemberists and 2005's Picaresque on legendary Pacific Northwest label Kill Rock Stars. By the mid 2000s they were one of America's biggest indie success stories, and jumped to major label Capitol for their subsequent releases, 2006's Crane Wife, 2009's Hazard of Love and 2011's The King is Dead.

Led by indie rock's hyper-literate bespectacled thespian-in-chief Colin Meloy, The Decemberists are a lot of things to a lot of people. To some, they're a nasally-voiced novelty act, to many others, they're one of the great bands of the 21st century. Named after a failed revolt movement against Russian tzar Nicholas I's ascension to the throne in 1825, The Decemberists are known for their obsession with history, gleefully antiquated lyrics and zany audience participation at live shows. The band has long broken down barriers of what it means to be a rock star, Meloy recently released a hit children's book for example, but none of this would be notable if the band weren't responsible for album after album of stunning songwriting. Beginning with 2002's Castaways and Cutouts, the Decemberists set the formula they would largely follow for the next decade, sharp-witted songs that merge British folk, americana and rock. Their early records included a pirate's booty of quirkiness, songs led by accordion, a ballad from the perspective of a French legionnaire, lyrics like, “We laid on the mattress and tumbled to sleep/Our eyes align, swaddled in our civies/Cradled in our dunagrees.” It was so playful you couldn't accuse them of pretension, the weirdness only adding to the fun. And then when you think they're a one-trick pony of nerdy buccaneer fandom, they hit you with a track like “Red Right Ankle” a tender love song cleverly tied together by the anatomy of an ankle as a metaphor.

The Decemberists' quirkiness has mellowed over the years, but the keen songwriting hasn't. After a series of well-executed concept albums (2006's the Crane Wife, based on Japanese folklore, and 2009's The Hazards of Love, a prog-rock song suite filled with plenty of mythology) the Decemberists return with The King Is Dead, an album of simple yet excellent country tinged rock. Meloy sounds more like Tom Petty than Jack Sparrow, but the sound absolutely suits him. “Don't Carry It All” is a feel good singalong with a country shuffle and harmonica cameos, but it was built as much for a stadium as a back porch. “Calamity Song” is a foot-tapping, jangly rocker that stands up with some of the band's best moments over the years. It's catchy, but as always, Meloy's signature vocal style cuts through the music, tempting you tease the meaning out of his animated lyrical images-or not. The beauty of the Decemberists is that you can dive deep into their world, or just enjoy the ride.