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Lessons in Volcabulary With the Decemberists

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Some of the words the native Montanan uses in his toppling slugs of antique-ish trains are ones Mark Twain would have had to amble over to his corner bookshelf, take his dictionary from its hole, and thumb through it to find.

 

Bringing things like zoot suits and trucker hats back into the loving eyes of society is never really so far gone from possibility that a scene-stealing turn by an A-lister in a blockbuster movie, or the remorseless bludgeoning of the look by a small-town Iowan, who now makes a living fooling with celebrity vanities, their rides, their homes, their egos, and their ex-wives. Those are easy to re-implement, although, I’m not sure trucker hats were ever chic outside of trucker circles or that Ashton Kutcher is the guy we should thank for their image reversal—but we’re not here to argue apples and oranges.

Concepts can become new again. The idea of opening doors for women can still make a comeback, no matter how discourteous we all get. But a band like Portland, Oregon’s The Decemberists are bringing back language. The outdated and trivial language we have no use for anymore. A lot of the time, we aren’t all that sure what frontman Colin Meloy is talking about. The beauty of that is that we don’t have to. We’re not supposed to know what he’s talking about. We no longer live in a world where wagon trains are still as futuristic as the Internet. Some of the words the native Montanan uses in his toppling slugs of antique-ish trains are ones Mark Twain would have had to amble over to his corner bookshelf, take his dictionary from its hole, and thumb through it to find.

“ I don’t usually have people coming up to me at shows and asking what certain words mean,” Meloy said recently from the backseat of the band’s tour van as it traveled through the expanses of Texas. “I never write something and think, ‘This word will get people scrambling to a dictionary.’ But I do think it appeals to the nerdier variety of people, like myself, who appreciate that extra challenge.”
He’s dusted off bombazine (a twilled or corded cloth made of silk and wool or of cotton and wool) and stevedore (one who loads or unloads vessels) in “The Soldiering Life,” bagatelle (anything trifling; a game played by striking balls with a cue) in “The Legionnaire’s Lament” and samovar (a copper urn for making tea) in “Part II” from the band’s newest EP, The Tain. Try using those in the grocery store check-out line, or in casual conversation with the convenience store attendant, during that empty time between the swiping of your credit card and handing you the pen, the next time you fill your car up with gas.

Meloy has taken interest in the lifestyles and attitudes of 19th century England and made them exotic. He’s retro-erotic; listening to any of the band’s two full-lengths or two EPs carries with it the enchanted sense that could come with opening a mothballed cedar trunk that’s been sealed, untouched in the attic for the last four decades. The music is musky but familiar, and the lines he sings—so sweet and airy—feel as if they would crumble like a sugar cube or dried-out rose petal if they were touched with bare hands. And yet, there’s something tangible and universally understood in the chestnuts that The Decemberists roast.

“ I guess there’s really no accounting for it,” Meloy says of the band’s growing popularity—a popularity that recently allowed him to quit his job working at a bookstore and live solely as a working musician. “It’s just a story. I think there’s something you can relate to if you dig into it a little bit. It’s not that I really slave over it to make it apparent.”

The way Meloy came into his style of songwriting, turning anachronistic, is much the same way that led Chris Ballew of the Presidents of the United States of America to shuck two strings off of his bass and three strings off of his guitar in the late ’90s: a boredom with traditional methods.

“ I just got to the point where I’d explored all the corners of traditional pop songwriting and I needed something to keep me interested,” he said. “I didn’t really expect anyone to listen to these songs. We didn’t start with that goal (of scoring fans) in mind. I think the way we got here was pretty unconventional. We weren’t doing it with the intent of appealing to a wide audience and making a lot of money.”

Recently releasing The Tain on Spanish label Acuarela, The Decemberists tack together a loose interpretation of an Irish myth of the same name that shows the band in a crunchier garb than they’ve ever worn. Produced by Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla (who is also the intended producer of their next full-length, to be recorded this summer), the record churns and tears through another tale of suffering soldiers and widows. It features, for the first time, the lead vocal duties of drummer Rachel Blumberg, playing the widow. A concentric whir of Rhodes organ or accordion from the work desk of Jenny Conlee fashions the signature, along with Meloy’s scholarly sounding (it doesn’t seem possible to hear such a thing, but it’s striking in his case), high-end vocals to each Decemberists number. It’s the only conventionality in what the band—rounded out by upright bassist Nate Query and pedal steel player Chris Funk—does musically. To many a fan’s surprise, Meloy is exceedingly normal aside from some odd pursuits here and there.

“ I get the feeling that people expect me to be a weird guy,” he said. “I’m a pretty conventional person, but I’m thinking of taking up model ship building. My days [since quitting at the bookstore] feel empty and void. We’ll see where else my aspirations take me.”
The Decemberists play Mojo’s in Columbia on April 3.
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