Story-tellers

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

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.

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