The Decemberists

TrackAlbum
Leslie Anne LevineCastaways and Cutouts
Here I Dreamt I Was An ArchitectCastaways and Cutouts
The Chimbley SweepHer Majesty The Decemberists
The InfantaPicaresque
Eli, The Barrow BoyPicaresque
Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)The Crane Wife
The Wanting Comes In Waves / RepaidThe Hazards Of Love
The Queen's Rebuke / The CrossingThe Hazards Of Love
Dear AveryThe King Is Dead
June HymnThe King Is Dead

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Contributor: Merric Davidson

Rakes, rogues and rascals. Crooks, castaways and cut-throats. Whalers, sailors, jailers … drownings galore. If it’s penny blood dramas you’re after (and why not) you’ve come to the right place. My good grief, there’s never been pop music like this!

Some eight years ago, an old friend sent me a CD-R of good stuff he was listening to at the time. I have it here. It is, as ever, an eclectic, excellent mix – Mates of State, Jason Webley (“I need a catchy tune like a bullet in the heart”), A Silver Mount Zion, Vetiver, Tunng – but there was one track that I instantly fell for, and as always with this music thing I was smitten – the voice, the song, the sound – but particularly the voice, searching, struggling, surviving, like Jerry Lewis on speed, The Chimbley Sweep was an instant hook, a Dickensian rocker – “I am a poor and a wretched boy …”

I had to investigate further. It transpired that The Chimbley Sweep was on an album called Her Majesty The Decemberists by the revolutionary-inspired, brilliantly-monikered band of that name. I loved it and went back and forth in this band’s crazy catalog, and played them over and over.

Colin Meloy formed The Decemberists at the turn of the 21st century in Portland, Oregon. The basic lineup consists of Meloy on vocals and words and guitar and things, Chris Funk on instrumental allsorts, Jenny Conlee on keys, Nate Query on bass, and later, John Moen drums. Meloy is a storyteller par excellence and without peer among his contemporaries. Above all though, he is an enthusiast – and I like that.

I’ve seen them in concert in the UK a couple of times and it’s a joyous experience. Choosing the ten top songs here has proved absurdly difficult so I’ve spread the load across the six albums to date and I’ll let Meloy’s words speak for themselves.

From the first album, Castaways and Cutouts (2002), it’s the lament of Leslie Anne Levine:

My name is Leslie Ann Levine
My mother birthed me down a dry ravine
My mother birthed me far too soon
Born at nine and dead at noon

 
Then you need to “travel without seat belts on” in Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect

And here in Spain I am a Spaniard
I will be buried with my marionettes
Countess and courtesan
Have fallen ‘neath my tender hand
When their husbands were not around

 
From the sophomore Her Majesty The Decemberists, it’s got to be the one that first hooked me:

I am a chimbley, a chimbley sweep
No bed to lie, no shoes to hold my feet
Upon the rooftops in dead of night
You’ll hear me cry, I’ll shake you from your sleep

“O lonely urchin!” the widow cried,
“I’ve not been swept since the day my husband died.”
Her cheeks are blushing, her legs laid bare
And shipwrecked there, I’ll shake you from your sleep

 
From album number three, Picaresque (2005), the two songs select themselves, starting with the incredible blast of the opening track (used to great effect, anachronistically, in Mad Men). Born well out of his true time, Colin Meloy arrived at his finest hour with The Infanta:

Here she comes in her palanquin
On the back of an elephant
On a bed made of linen and sequins and silk

All astride on her father’s line
With the king and his concubines
And her nurse with her pitchers of liquors and milk

And we’ll all come praise the infanta.
 
There are many splendid songs on Picaresque and We Both Go Down Together is one of them but it’s the goth horror of Eli, The Barrow Boy that gets the nod:

Eli, the barrow boy, when they found him
Dressed all in corduroy, he had drowned in the river down the way
They laid his body down in a churchyard
But still when the moon is out, with his pushcart, he calls down the day.

Such imagery. Dark Victorian alleyways. The dank fog hiding the river rolling by. Shadows and shadowy figures. No escape.
 
I had thought I’d be including The Mariner’s Revenge Song from Picaresque. It’s a great epic, theatrical, as so many of these songs are. It’s played live as a closer or encore at their concerts, and it’s fantastic, but it’s really best heard/viewed in performance. (I sneaked it in anyway via the video opportunity above!)

The next, the fourth album, The Crane Wife, was well received in 2006 and it is a real grower; an album that should be played as just that, an album of songs. It’s a historic document too, touching on battles and conflicts in Stalingrad and Belfast. The twelve minute three-song cycle of The Island is superb, Meloy at his most enchanting. The topper choice though goes to his duet with Laura Veirs on the haunting Yankee Bayonet.

Heart-carved tree trunk, Yankee bayonet
A sweetheart left behind
Far from the hills of the sea-swelled Carolinas
That’s where my true love lies

Look for me when the sun-bright swallow
Sings upon the birch bough high
But you are in the ground with the voles and the weevils
All a’chew upon your bones so dry

 
It’s now 2009 and Colin Meloy has been wrestling with “concept” these last few years, soon to be fully realised in The Hazards Of Love set in an ancient forest amid magic, murder and mayhem. Many dramatic songs and, for me, two stand-out tracks on The Hazards Of Love – Meloy’s love of English traditional folk music is reflected by naming this one after the 1964 Anne Briggs EP of the same name – and both feature the guest vocals of one of the great modern American singers, Shara Worden. Her performances on The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid and The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing are just incredible, her range is startling, the phrasing blood-curdlingly brilliant. You could imagine The Hazards Of Love being staged, which in fact it was a couple of years ago!

The last two slots are reserved for The Decemberists No.1 U.S. album, The King Is Dead (2011), co-produced by Tucker Martine and featuring R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on three tracks. But the ones I’m going for are Buck-less. Instead, I’m picking a couple that feature harmonies from the great Gillian Welch – Dear Avery and June Hymn. Could have put Down By The Water (with Peter Buck guitar) in there too. Rolling Stone called The King Is Dead “the most pastoral, rustic record they’ve ever made”, and it is.

Pegging clothing on the line
Training jasmine how to vine
Up the arbor to your door and more
Standing on the landing with the war
You shouldered all the night before

The Decemberists – so good – not standing still.

 
The Decemberists official website

Colin Meloy’s website

The Decemberists biography (iTunes)

My Brightest Diamond (Shara Worden) website

There’s also a whole lot of fine B-sides, EPs and download exclusives from The Decemberists. Colin Meloy has also recorded the songs of Morrissey, Shirley Collins, Sam Cooke, The Kinks on individual concert-only CDs. All this and more on the discography page on The Decemberists website. Also, their song, One Engine, for The Hunger Games is a bit of a firecracker.

TopperPost #213

3 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Mar 4, 2014

    It’s all wonderful. An excellent piece from Merric and I love the idea of portraying them by their lyrics. I would counsel anyone who doesn’t know them to start with “The King is Dead” which is immediate ear-worm, radio-friendly stuff, then work backwards to the more intricate and esoteric stuff. Two I love are January Hymn and This Is Why We Fight … opposite styles. January Hymn and June Hymn demand being selected one after the other, as I’ve so often done. I reviewed their 2011 Bristol show.

  2. David Lewis
    Mar 4, 2014

    Great Band, great list. Enjoying listening to them again. Thanks Merric.

  3. Ian Ashleigh
    Mar 4, 2014

    Thanks for the list Merric. I have always thought Hazards of Love would lend itself to a feature length animated movie with extended instrumental pieces recorded by the band to continue the narrative between the scenes.

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