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Elf Rock

The Decemberists are coming! Intelligentsia, to arms!

It's no surprise to learn that, as a child in Montana, Decemberists front man Colin Meloy wanted desperately to be an elf. And it follows naturally from that for him to have grown into being a huge Morrissey and Robyn Hitchcock fanatic, as those are two of the most elfin singer-songwriters of all time. I recently saw Hitchcock perform solo in Austin, and it was easy to imagine at the end of his set that he would sprout wings and fly from the stage and into the night.

And Colin Meloy's vaguely nasal, droll and somewhat quavery tenor sounds just like Hitchcock's, right down to a strongly English feel, even if the Decemberists' music is unique and instantly recognizable as its own. Meloy is a survivor of the great alt-country crash-and-burn, and you can hear a smidgen of that, but as with Clem Snide and Calexico, you can also hear that several members of his band have jazz backgrounds. There's also Gypsy accordion and an obvious regard for hoary old folk from America and the British Isles.

And given the Decemberists' proclivity for sea shanties, it comes as no surprise to learn that Meloy is also a big fan of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin book series, from which the Hollywood blockbuster Master and Commander was drawn. "The film didn't quite do it justice -- the technical language in the books is amazing," Meloy says from his home in Portland. "I missed that."

Picaresque is the band's new album, and it's probably safe to call it their best to date, even if it is up against some stiff competition from earlier records. Co-produced by Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla, Picaresque was recorded in a disused Portland church-cum-Montessori school. Both the site and the producer helped afford the band greater creativity than they'd ever had before. "We have now established a really strong working relationship, with having already done The Tain with him," Meloy says of Walla and the 17-minute EP they recorded with him last year. "That was kind of a quick process, but we all got really tight. It was a really intensive, three-day thing where we slept on the floor at the studio. That helped to create this really tight bond with Walla creatively. So we swore we would do a full-length together, and this record was that opportunity."

Meloy believes that Walla had just as much fun working with the Decemberists as they had with him. "We turned this church into a studio and worked on the record for a month," he says. "I think the record kind of allowed us to think freely about how we wanted to go about recording it -- no idea was too crazy to try. With Death Cab for Cutie, granted they experiment, but they have a set way of doing things. But with us, for him it was really just a canvas for him just to mess around with his craziest ideas, and we're always game for that."

According to dictionary.com, "picaresque" means "a genre of usually satiric prose fiction originating in Spain and depicting in realistic, often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society." Picaresque the album sticks pretty close to that idea, nowhere more so than on "The Mariner's Revenge Song," an epic, magic-realist narrative in which a wronged son finally avenges himself on the man who destroyed his mother's life only after the two of them are swallowed by a whale.

The protagonist of that song is one of the only characters on the album to achieve success in any traditional sense, even if he will surely die a slow, painful death by whale's digestive juices sooner or later. Elsewhere, there's the failed athlete of the balmy and mid-tempo "Sporting Life," and legions of doomed lovers in "We Both Go Down Together," "The Bagman's Gambit," "Eli the Barrow Boy" and others.

And then there's the devastated war widows of what for me is the album's (and possibly the year's) very best song, "16 Military Wives," on which, over huge-ass horns and roiling electric piano, Meloy laconically assails the Iraq war, the American media and the celebrity cult. His line "And the anchorperson on TV goes 'la-di-da-di-di-di-daaaa' " is devastating, as is the couplet that rips into grandstanding political celebs: "15 celebrity minds, leading their 15 sordid, wretched, checkered lives / Will they find the solution in time using their 15 pristine moderate liberal minds?" It's as great as Clem Snide's dig at Jewel on "Moment in the Sun": "I have a lot of things to say / and you'd be wise to listen good / I think that hunger, war and death / Are bringin' everybody down."

 

"In the Iraq war, when you boil it down, it's the tragedy of people dying that really should be capturing everybody's attention," Meloy says. "And so [the song] wouldn't be all one-sided, a cardboard cutout, it sort of criticizes the celebrity cult as well and the absurdity of that balanced against people dying. So we threw that in the mix in the second verse. There's something really absurd about that. American pop culture right now seems to be at this moment of supreme hubris, just waiting to be toppled. The last verse ["14 cannibal kings wondering blithely what the dinner bell will bring / 15 celebrity heads served on a leafy bed of 16 military wives"] is sort of a reflection of what I think will be that inevitable toppling. And I hope that's not too far off -- hopefully the bigger that hubris grows, the greater that fall will be. I just think -- I just hope, that maybe after this administration passes into history, we can actually rediscover some humility."

"Eli the Barrow Boy" has a naked, Townes Van Zandt feel. Turns out Meloy is a big fan -- he just viewed the Heartworn Highways DVD, which stars Van Zandt and Guy Clark, among others in the then-nascent outlaw country movement. "It's really punk-rock watching that movie," Meloy says. "You're like. 'Wow, these guys are so punk,' in retrospect. They were doing it at the same time as punk, and it's hard to label it as punk, but that's what they were doing: just living to create genuine music and songs."

Back in the late '90s, Meloy even took a stab at a career as an alt-country artist. He quickly came to the conclusion that the scene was dead. "I thought it had gotten stagnant and there wasn't anything interesting being done," he says. "There was a period in time when I think it was very exciting. Uncle Tupelo's first couple of records…but everything that followed it was kind of derivative. If it wasn't derivative of Uncle Tupelo, it was a novelty act -- Trailer Park Chic -- and just re-creating Buck Owens. That was done somewhat successfully by some people, but for the vast majority it was completely derivative. And if that stuff is not done correctly, it's pap. It's really boring."

As is the genre's bible: No Depression magazine. "They're just afraid to cover anything 'out there.' They stay safe within their confines," he says. "Granted, I haven't read the magazine in forever, though I'll pick it up every once in a while and leaf through it, but it looks like they're covering more adult-contemporary, singer-songwriter stuff. Which is forever stagnant, and I guess that's the appeal. It's safe and forever unchanging."

Unlike, say, the ill-defined designation "indie rock," which these days seems to include everything from synth-pop to the fringes of metal. "But at the same time I was into Uncle Tupelo, I was also listening to the heyday of indie rock -- Pavement, Built to Spill, Belle and Sebastian," Meloy remembers. "When I first heard If You're Feeling Sinister, it was a touchstone moment for me. I started creating more pop music, which was something I was always interested in, having grown up as a serious Smiths and Robyn Hitchcock fan. So right now I think that indie rock is pretty broad, and it's good that it's broad, and it's also creating some of the most interesting and forward-thinking music out there."

And the Decemberists are among the best in that group. Paradoxically, their very forward-sounding music comes from roots far deeper in the past than just about any band out there today. "British and Irish and Scottish folk infused with blues became the real country music," says Meloy, donning his musicologist cap. "And there was always something really dark and seedy about Irish and British folk that really comes out in our music."

And if you really wanted to micro-define the Decemberists, you'd probably have to call them something like indie folk-pop. Meloy's entire songwriting ethic comes from the folk tradition -- especially his penchant for inhabiting characters in other places and other times. Meloy cites Steve Earle as a forerunner in that department, along with Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. "There are a lot of really memorable characters that came out of that record, and it is borrowing from the folk tradition of just passing on news. Those are some of the same traditions that I'm passing on and trying to follow. It's sort of an anachronistic pattern, but you can try to re-create and make it new again by using interesting and different characters."

And I'll pass on some news of my own: The Decemberists are one of the ten best bands in America, and you'd be a fool to miss this show.


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