Wednesday, July 11, 2018


Can it really only be 16 years since the Decemberists first peered around the corner into existence? Strangely, and I speak as a fan, it seems so much longer. Not, it is true, to the taste of all, the vocals of bandleader Colin Meloy being possibly the main hurdle to mass approval, together with their unworldly appearance,  the senior common room at a Cahoots/The Band theme night, and their downright odd arrangements, a quirky mix of the archaic with the unexpected, conspire to a niche version of world famous. Which is just fine in my book. And 'July, July' is perhaps the standout track on debut LP 'Castaways and Cutouts'.

Colin Meloy reminds me of Richard Thompson in a strange way, a catalyst of tradition and electricity. But maybe not so strangely. (Yes, I am going to talk about Meloy mainly, rather than the band, regardless of how tremendous are his cohorts, instrumentally, and they are, without him as prime singer and songwriter, they are meaningless. His band and he calls the tunes.) Constantly ploughing his own singular furrow, undoubtedly indebted to the british folk revival of the 60s and 70s, yet ears attuned to influences elsewhere. He has produced a series of solo albums, EPs really, devoted to such disparate bedfellows as Shirley Collins, Sam Cooke, Morrissey and the Kinks. But are they so very different? In Meloy's hands, often just his guitar and marmite voice, sometimes with spectral backing vocals, the similarities become immense.

See what I mean? OK, so 'Summertime' is hardly unique to Cooke, but what a version this is, drawing into focus what a great song it is, a steamy Tennessee Williams 3 acts in a few simple verses. And so too the songs of Stephen M. and of Ray Davies, let alone the trad. arr. seamed by Collins. I have to question, mind, quite what Meloy now has to say about the increasingly bizarre rants of the erstwhile Smiths frontman, whose image he has allegedly inked on his skin.

The Decemberists, of course, plough similar, albeit augmented by the trappings of electric rock music, chucking in accordion and stand up bass where necessary, and now, in 2018, the introduction of synthesisers and similar new-fangled. And now, instead of ancient mariners, they sing about village idiots.

Having caught them live in Birmingham (UK!) on their 'King is Dead' tour, I found myself initially uplifted, ahead of finding their cerebrality perhaps fits better with the recorded than the live. And there is then a strange dichotomy between the earnest lyrical scene-setting and Meloy gradually morphing into a demented ringmaster, corralling the crowd into choral participation. (I should add I am the frowning geezer in the crowd who never sings along, when asked to, or claps or waves a lighter. I can't abide all that stuff.) However, when they recently revisited the canon of 60s/70s folk in the guise of 'Offa Rex', their collaboration with folkish gamine, Olivia Chaney, this I wanted to see, so wanted to see. Still do. Interestingly they are keeping mighty quiet as to who the support on their forthcoming UK tour might be, my hope and money on Chaney..........

A final thought, for those who have ploughed through the vids above, and can't quite get it. This helpful instruction manual might help.

Still with me? Probably the best place to buy.

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