"Colin Meloy is completely adorable and my current music-boy crush," gushed Leslie Cowell on the music blog Stereogum in a thread about the Decemberists’ frontman. "If I was a prostitute and he was a sailor and we happened to meet in a dark alley in Montmartre, circa 1879, I would totally let him sweep my chimbley." Meloy is an unlikely heartthrob: an oblong-spectacled bibliophile with a GRE-flashcard vocabulary, a sheep’s bleat for a singing voice, and a Monty Python–esque penchant for donning elaborate period costume. Yet there’s nary a more fitting fantasy in which to cast the 30-year-old singer-storyteller behind the Decemberists, a fantastical ensemble who perform orchestral-pop tunes about a Meloy-imagined cast of Parisian whores, salty seafarers, and orphaned "chimbley" cleaners. If Voltaire were a 21st-century American indie-rocker, he’d probably be something like Colin Meloy.
Meloy’s imaginative tales of adventurous roués, ill-fated waifs, and yesteryear streetwalkers does seem to make him popular among the ladies. When the Montana native came to town last month for a sold-out solo show at T.T. the Bear’s Place, a snow date rescheduled from January, the females in the audience mostly ignored their sullen dates, mouthing along to every farcical word about bedwetters, ambulance chasers, and a brothel birth to a Chinese trapeze-artist mother. Meloy even managed to charm some of the dudes: amid a silent lull, a near-hysterical man squealed, "We love you, Colin!"
One presumes they will love him even more after the release of Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars), the five-piece ensemble’s third full-length release, an 11-tune episodic adventure that hits stores this Tuesday. Aside from aural architect Meloy, Picaresque features guitarist Chris Funk, upright-bassist Nate Query, accordion player/keyboardist Jenny Conlee, and drummer Rachel Blumberg. But after the album was recorded last summer, Blumberg, who shows up in the credits of the recent release from fellow Oregonian M. Ward, Transistor Radio (Merge), defected from the band. She’s been replaced by John Moen, a/k/a one of Stephen Malkmus’s Jicks. For the upcoming "The Advance of the Picaroons" tour, which hits Avalon on May 25, there will be six Decemberists, with violinist and former That Dog member Petra Haden coming along for the road trip.
Under the production of Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/keyboardist Chris Walla, the Decemberists recorded Picaresque last summer, over the course of three weeks, in a rented Portland (Oregon) church. "We’d suffered a bit just from the stresses that come with working in a studio setting," Meloy explained last month, before the T.T.’s show, in a booth upstairs at the Middle East. In jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, he’s snuggled beside his freckled redhead girlfriend, 29-year-old Carson Ellis, the Edward-Gorey-on-uppers-style illustrator who draws the Decemberists’ artwork. "I just kind of always wanted to record in a church and just get that spacy sound — just set up some mikes and get this stuff live." Although they didn’t have to contend with clock-ticking pressures of a studio, the borrowed space was a progressive community center that brought with it more mundane distractions. "There was like Food Not Bombs going on in the kitchen downstairs and a Montessori school being moved in. There was actually a pagan men’s group that met on a Sunday night that we had to move a bunch of stuff out for, so it was really interesting."
The result is a careering collage of maritime voyages, forlorn characters, and lovesick vignettes. The characters are typical Meloy creations, "his little babies" as he calls them: army wives, trick turners, tragic tramps, a clumsy athlete, a rootless ghost, a lowly bureaucrat pining for a Russian spy, a locomotive captain. Picaresque works not only as an album but as an audio book. Plucked guitar strings punctuate stanzas. Drum beats flip pages. Violins resonate wisdom like a vibrato Greek chorus.
The 53-minute album opens with a startling wild animal howl, a Lion King–style jungle summons to the crowning parade of "The Infanta" — both the tune’s title and the proper term for an Iberian princess. From the album’s very first line, Meloy’s lyrical magniloquence becomes manifest ("Here she comes in her palanquin") and continues with a description of the coronation’s ceremonial fanfare ("From all atop the parapets blow a multitude of coronets/Melodies rhapsodical and fair!"). On Picaresque, people don’t simply scowl at Meloy, they "fix on me a frown"; a deceitful man isn’t just a scoundrel, he’s a "rake and a roustabout"; in "Eli, the Barrow Boy," the title character peddles corncobs and candlewax below the "tamaracks," a term for deciduous larch trees. Says Meloy, "People get really worked up about that. Like, ‘Oh, it’s a band that sends you to your dictionary.’ If you read a novel — any novel, even if it’s from this century — these words are not going to be that rare."
Ellis confides that she didn’t know what a tamarack was before Eli’s lament. "It doesn’t sound like a word for a tree," she explains. "I imagined something with four poles and a canopy."
Meloy insists that slipping words like "tamarack" into his lyrics isn’t an effort to educate listeners, or even his girlfriend. "I don’t use that language as an attempt to send people to the dictionary or to make people smarter. It’s more because the words are really beautiful. ‘Tamarack’ is a really beautiful word. All those words that you might think were strange — like, say, palanquin — are just really gorgeous words."
In "On the Bus Mall," an airy, lifting, organ-moody pop song about the protective partnership of two popular male prostitutes, one half of the pair declares, "We’re kings among runaways." In this world, the bus-station hustlers are the real romantics — they understand the purity of love more accurately than academics or poets. "I think they’re really sweet," Meloy admits. They’re two of his favorite characters on Picaresque. "I just thought of two young boy prostitutes and how they would comfort one another. Even though that’s my crazy imagination about what it’s like to be a male prostitute and have this partner, I think there’s something really real about those characters."
Meloy also has a knack for writing gorgeous, complex compositions that echo like earworm balladry but aren’t love songs at all. The seeming star-crossed-lover serenade "We Both Go Down Together" is actually about a rich boy raping a hapless vagrant and then trying to coax her into a cliff-jumping suicide pact. The violins weep while the bass drum practically pushes them over the side. "The male is a complete cad who obviously takes advantage of the other person. In his mind, she was willing when in fact he was sort of forcing himself upon her all the way up to the point of trying to convince her to commit suicide with him." Meloy smirks, "It was kind of fun to create a song where the narrator is just an asshole."
Picaresque’s magnum opus is the nine-minute "The Mariner’s Revenge Song," an accordion-swaying saga that’s set in the belly of a whale. Equal parts Book of Jonah, Pinocchio, and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, the epic tale stars an unforgiving guttersnipe who hunts down the scallywag sailor who’d bedded his widowed mother, left her penniless from his gambling debts, and sent her to an early grave. As the bitter protagonist finally confronts his lifelong arch-enemy on the ocean, a brobdingnagian whale rises from the sea and gulps them all down.
"That was just like a melody and a chord progression," Meloy says about the genesis of the yarn. "For some reason, it just felt like the cadence of a monologue of, uh, some guy in a whale. I’d always honestly wanted to write a song involving being swallowed by a whale, which I think is one of the coolest things that’s been handed down to us as an archetype. I love how it’s completely acceptable to the collective imagination that you could be swallowed by a whale, and then you would just be, like, sitting on the tongue and you’d be sitting on a chair and there’d be a boat in there."
Such literary archetypes, he reiterates, aren’t meant to be haughty. "Anybody who labels us as a pretentious band, I think that the joke’s on you — because we’re not. We’re constantly making fun of ourselves. So basically, we’re a band entirely based around self-loathing."
Case in point: Picaresque’s album art is a goofy homage to cornball community theater, with the band members all costumed like individual characters on the album. Meloy is the murderous mariner. Query is a half-shirt-wearing fop. Conlee is the grease-streaked wheelbarrow boy. Blumberg is a trench-coated bagman. Funk is the "tamarack."
Ellis jokes, "The next record’s going to have naked pictures of the band."
Meloy grins. "Oh yeah," he says, pretending to pose as if he were pointing at his crotch. The girls would certainly like that.
The Decemberists play Avalon, 13 Lansdowne Street in Boston, on May 25 with Willy Mason; call (617) 931-2000.
Issue Date: March 18 - 24, 2005
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