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Rather than whine about themselves, the Decemberists spin archetypal yarns, and indie rockers love them for it

Wednesday, Jan 14 2004
On Sept. 9, 2003, Billy Liar was born whole and complex, with an elaborate back story, behavioral tics, habits, a profession, fears, desires, opinions, and a penchant for touching himself. His creator was Colin Meloy, the brains, voice, and guitar behind the Portland quintet the Decemberists.

On Her Majesty the Decemberists, the group's second full-length, it's through Meloy's lighthearted singing and his bandmates' dramatically kitsch music that we first learn that "Billy Liar's got his hands in his pockets/ Staring over at the neighbor's, knickers down"; that he works in a mailroom when he's not pleasuring himself with thoughts of the girl next door. It's not difficult to come away from a song like "Billy Liar" imagining the posters hanging on his walls, the dirty clothes lying on his thick brown carpet, and a faded-blue Honorable Mention ribbon Liar won in a science fair some years back pinned to his bedpost.

Meloy belongs to a tradition of songwriters -- the storyteller -- that is not altogether common these days. Dylan was a storyteller. Lennon and McCartney were storytellers, too (see "Eleanor Rigby"). But lately, convincing, elaborate fictions are not encountered very often in indie rock, let alone pop music, where most lyricists ignore the storytelling tradition and instead just talk about themselves. Nevertheless, the Decemberists have cultivated an impressive following, thanks to Meloy's intricate characters and his band's vivid music.

Take Her Majesty's first song, "Shanty for Arethusa," which begins with a creaky clicking, a female scream, lilting accordion, the crescendo of a cymbal, and grand, syncopated acoustic guitar strums. You can almost smell the combination of swordfish, sea salt, and water-beaten wood. Cued by the nautical flavor, Meloy begins singing about setting to sea, lewd pirate behavior, and nocturnal scandals.

Among the current crop of skinny emo boys whining about unattainable love and blinged-out divas searching for street credibility, the Decemberists stand out like a skull and crossbones on an empty blue horizon. Where most bands play chord changes, rhythms, and melodies, the Decemberists score short musical films. Where most write lyrics about a disenchanted girlfriend or flowery, musical self-help manuals, this band crafts meticulous fables, creating curious characters, like Billy Liar, with words that give us glimpses of their personalities and music that fills in the gaps.

It's no surprise that Meloy, a Missoula, Mont., native, studied English literature and creative writing at the University of Montana. He's also an avid reader, which, considering his deft manipulation of imagery, makes sense.

The Decemberists -- Meloy, accordion player and pianist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query, theremin and pedal steel player Chris Funk, and drummer Ezra Holbrook -- coalesced a few years after Meloy's move to Portland in 1999. Together they recorded an untitled five-song EP and 2002's Castaways & Cutouts before getting signed by Kill Rock Stars, which reissued Castaways in early 2003.

That first record is less intimate and dramatic than their latest, but it's certainly filled with the elements that would mature with their next batch of songs. The melodies are catchy, the rhythmic patterns interesting, and -- as is apparent from glancing at titles such as "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect," "The Legionnaire's Lament," and "A Cautionary Song" -- Meloy's imagination was already going full speed.

If anything, Castaways suffers from placing its influences too far in the foreground. At times, the record sounds like a precise mathematical equation in which the nasally croon of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum sits atop the kitschy, warm pop of Belle & Sebastian. Still, it was enough to generate buzz for the band. At 2003's South by Southwest music festival, few performances were more anticipated than the one the Decemberists gave as part of the Kill Rock Stars showcase.

While Castaways was written over a period of two years, Meloy confesses that Her Majesty came together relatively quickly. "We had about six of the songs done when we first signed to Kill Rock Stars," says the frontman, speaking by phone from his Portland home. "One of the selling points when [label owner] Slim [Moon] was talking to us was that we were ripe and ready to go into the studio, which was sort of a lie." Meloy admits to having been nervous about whether or not he could perform under the pressure of time constraints. A finished album was expected within six months, and he, more than anyone, knew that the subjects of his songs needed time in the creative womb, that working out the idiosyncrasies that made them believable was not an overnight process. His self-doubt was never validated, though.

Her Majesty is an exciting record because the Decemberists sketch their subjects with enough quirks and qualities to provoke an emotional response. On "I Was Meant for the Stage," a melancholy seven-minute opus centered around an acoustic guitar, a fellow Meloy calls "an aging thespian" reflects on a life spent desiring stardom. We can't help but sympathize with whatever failed relationships or auditions, whatever lackluster or fantastical life career, prompted this reflection. The piece slowly builds, each instrument taking its time to enter the scenario, before everything collapses into a ghastly cacophony. We come away from the song having experienced, in just a few minutes, the complete emotional rise and fall of the thespian.

Unlike the topics of the confessional-type songwriter, who perhaps cites a line of dialogue from an estranged relationship and leaves it at that, the personalities on Her Majesty are shaded by multidimensional histories. Meloy attributes his yarn-spinning abilities to his comprehension of storytelling in mediums other than music. "I come at it from a historian's perspective," he says. "The characters that appear in the songs, if you really boil it down, are pretty much anachronistic stereotypes or just literary motifs or figures that have popped up in literature since the 19th century." He mentions the stock characters of Italian drama as an example, adding that "these characters have been around forever. I'm trying to infuse them into pop songwriting."

Whatever historical elements are responsible for his inspiration, Meloy is being modest. The people we encounter on Her Majesty are not mere cutouts; they're dynamic, emotional, and, well, horny characters we haven't encountered before. For example, the soot-laden orphan who appears in "The Chimbley Sweep" wouldn't be nearly as interesting if he weren't being courted by a nymphomaniac widow.

Where Meloy is at a disadvantage when creating complex fictions in only a few lines (this is songwriting remember, where you can only cram a certain number of words into each verse), his group's palette of sounds and arrangements goes a long way toward helping mold the setting. In "The Chimbley Sweep," there is an air of playfulness throughout. The scene -- as colored by the echoes of vaudeville and cabaret heard in the stand-up bass and dramatic accordion, as well as in the traded vocals (Conlee sings as the widow) and countrified electric guitar -- presents the protagonist not as some tragic, lovelorn workaholic, but as a sly, strutting loverboy, as if we were watching a 19th-century pornographic stage comedy.

Dylan and the Beatles certainly weren't the only ones to take on the role of the storyteller. Actually, there are a lot of bands that have, like the aforementioned Neutral Milk Hotel and Belle & Sebastian. But Meloy and his cohorts are indie rock's current ideal candidates for carrying this torch. And it's about time they came along, too, because as the whiny emo kids from Omaha and Olympia continue to subscribe to the "write what you know" ethic, indie fans are realizing that what they know isn't all that fantastic. Perhaps audiences would rather imagine Billy Liar with his trousers down than hear about Conor Oberst's brief tryst with Winona Ryder.

About The Author

Abigail Clouseau


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