Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Accidental Fan: The Decemberists

There are times where a strange set of circumstances leads me to a new infatuation. So it was with the Decemberists. Back in the day when I used to Google daily on 'Horslips' (in 2004 I was not yet familiar with Google News Alerts), I stumbled across a Boston Globe review of a Portland Oregon indie band that had had the nerve to do a concept EP based on The Tain. The same band was in town that very week at the Great American Music Hall. And so on and so forth.

Inevitably, there could be comparisons between Horslips' own 1973 masterpiece and the Decemberists' 2001 oddity. Both have literary roots: the Horslips album quotes W.B. Yeats introducing Lady Gregory's Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902), and Colin Meloy is on record crediting Thomas Kinsella's 1969 modernist edition as his inspiration. Found in a Portland bookstore. In the early days of the Bush administration. This cultural distance, in my opinion, is exactly why it is worth a listen with Meloy delivering a strangely unanchored and 'dislocated' take on the saga. Then there's the gap of years and the consciousness of style-experimentation from The Decemberists, who were thoughtfully exploring prog-rock and metal from an almost archaeological perspective at the time, as this review details:

Pitchfork Review: The Tain

"I never was a metal head," remarked Colin Meloy in an Earlash interview last July. "It's something in my later years I've come to regret a little bit just because everybody has their stories of when they were a metal head. And it wasn't until recently that I started listening to Black Sabbath and started appreciating it."

Two albums and a six-song Five Songs EP into their career, The Decemberists' are beginning to seriously define their sound; a sudden plunge into, say, heavy metal, seems unlikely. Yet the first movement of The Tain EP, the band's new 18-minute composition based loosely on the 8th-century Celtic Ulster cycle's central poem "Tain Bo Cuailinge", finds Meloy and the others most immediately concerned with-- am I about to say this?-- serious Ur-metal riffage. Granted, Decemberist metal is not going to weigh down the Dominique Leones of the world, but make no mistake: Never has this band sung a flag so black, a maiden so iron.

The opening of The Tain is indeed jarring, though there's always more than meets the ear with this band, and the disc's dark acoustic guitar opening is not without foil: Pay attention to how Colin overdramatizes the dark line with his heavy plucks, disarming its sense of foreboding. When the rest of the band joins him in unison, what should be enough of a killer riff for friendly genocide is undermined by the organ's funny whir and Rachel Blumberg's gentle cymbal taps. In short, the sound is off-kilter, though not without ample deception, and only hints at the level of sophistication to come in the remaining movements.

More at the link. And that was some time ago. The Decemberists are now signed to a major label, sell out dates in Dublin and San Francisco, have their newest album Crane Wife at the Starbucks counter near you and, once in a very great while, you even hear them on commercial radio.

Decemberists Homepage.

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