The Decemberists | Setting the Stage

decemberistssmallIf Colin Meloy serves as the director, playwright, and lead performer of the Portland, Ore.-based Decemberists' jolly troupe, then the crack team of instrumentalists that backs him up must be the criminally underappreciated group of techies.

 

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In a theatrical production, all the glory and roses fall at the actors' feet. The audience marvels at their emotional dexterity, their stunning physicality, their striking features. Of course, they'll also whisper about the magnificent direction and the playwright's boundless wit as they rise to give a standing ovation. But inevitably lost in all the hubbub is the true blood and guts of a show: the tech crew, the minds and hands that sculpted the scenery and meticulously arranged the spotlights. Without them, a show is merely a group of egotistical performers trading lines in the dark.

If Colin Meloy serves as the director, playwright, and lead performer of the Portland, Ore.-based Decemberists' jolly troupe, then the crack team of instrumentalists that backs him up must be the criminally underappreciated group of techies. Since the band's inception, Chris Funk (guitar), Nate Query (bass), and Jenny Conlee (accordion/keys) have expanded upon the architecture of Meloy's character sketches, filling in the space between the lines with lush musical colors. As chic as it is to parse the turns of phrase and historical allusions in Meloy's lyrics, not enough ink (or keystrokes, rather) goes into analyzing the instrumental choices that the rest of the band makes.

Just looking over the liner notes of the band's latest effort and major-label debut The Crane Wife, it looks like the group wants to incorporate every instrument that it can get its hands on, even if that means struggling for a few months to play them properly.

"We're not all total experts on our instruments," Conlee says. "Like for me, I'm a piano player. I'm not an accordion player, really. And Nate's a bass player, but he's playing cello. Chris just picked up the violin and he plays that live. It's fun."

Conlee's efforts especially have dominated the direction of the group's sound. On 2003's Castaways and Cutouts, the group's first LP, her accordion playing steeps the songs in an anachronistic sense of whimsy. But as Conlee has renewed her focus on the keys, the Decemberists have begun to sound more like a bona-fide 20th century outfit.

"The accordion definitely beckons back to an older time," Conlee says. "And there are songs that have historic lyrics somewhat. But when you put the synthesizer in there, all of a sudden it sounds more modern. It sounds '70s or something. So that is sort of a move, isn't it?"

In some ways, The Crane Wife is more like a leap for the band. Never mind the much-publicized move to Capitol Records; we'll get to that later. The real focus of this album is its two epic cornerstones, "The Crane Wife" and "The Island." In truth, the Decemberists are so well versed in crafting clever pop numbers that the record's obvious single candidates ("O, Valencia," "Summersong," "Yankee Bayonet") should strike familiar listeners as nothing drastically new. But to fit two sprawling suites into the context of a coherent album required a fair deal of collaborative musicianship, both from the band and producer Chris Walla. First came the titular piece, which was based on a Japanese folktale that Meloy stumbled upon in a bookstore. 

"[Colin] wrote the whole thing in three parts, one, two three, back-to-back," Conlee explains. "And then we went back and forth with instrumentation on those. [Parts] one and two are sort of a gradual buildup. We sat in the studio and rehearsed these songs and just sort of played them and figured out that's what it needed. Like, ‘OK...let's have the accordion and the Hammond and the cello come in here, and then we'll grow. And then all of a sudden we'll switch over to electric guitar...' I don't know, that stuff kind of just happens naturally."

Walla decided to shift the sequence of the song's movements, putting the third and final part of the song at the start of the record.

"Chris's idea was it could be a cyclical thing," Conlee says. "You could play it over and over again without stopping and have it be like a cycle, which was kind of a cool idea."

"The Island," meanwhile, gave Conlee the opportunity to flex her classically trained chops on the organ.

"Colin really had this idea, he wanted to do sort of a prog-rock thing. So [for the third movement] he was like, ‘Jenny, I want you to do something like Palmer...just try to think of some dizzy organ part and try to put some sort of Celtic rock organ jam in the middle.'"

Conlee says once all of the song's elements came together, "It was like, ‘Ahhh! Big rock tune!'"

It's the sort of grand moment that the Decemberists didn't always have the time or funding to realize while on venerable indie imprint Kill Rock Stars. The band's unexpected relocation to Capitol caused a fair degree of surprise and even a bit of the standard "sell out!" backlash. This despite the fact that previous icons of the Pacific Northwest indie scene—most notably Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and Elliott Smith—had made the jump to the majors in previous years and continued to make ambitious records.

"It was an interesting move," Conlee says. "I wasn't necessarily the one to support it at the beginning. But [Capitol has] been really great. They haven't really stood in our way in any way. The difference I find is that there's a higher profile on this record."

That means more publicity, more interviews, and more exposure for the Decemberists, a group that has always maintained its decidedly non-mainstream mission of bringing the sounds and stories of the past to the audiences of the present.

"We can still have folktales now, today," Conlee says. "I think it's part of our culture; it's just people don't necessarily do it."

So does that make her group the bards and troubadours of the 21st century?

"We'd like to be! I don't know. Woody Guthrie was that in the '60s. I think we could do that now. I'm not sure if we're to that stature yet, but it'd be cool to be thought of that way." | Jeremy Goldmeier

 

{mos_ri:Decemberists, Rick Springfield}

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