“On the lam from the law/On the steps of the capitol” were the first lyrics I ever heard by The Decemberists and I haven’t been able to stop listening to them since. The indie rock band quickly caught my attention with their unique and quirky take on music and once more I am surprised it has taken me nearly ten years to discover them. What makes The Decemberists so different from other bands is their niche way of creating a story through their music along the lines of folk stories. Some songs not even having a repeating chorus but a flowing story that is unlike any other narrative based song such as ‘My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist.’
Listen to the story here: https://soundcloud.com/thedecemberists/my-mother-was-a-chinese
Even though I have only recently begun listening to their music The Decemberists have been around since 2000 and are an American band from Portland, Oregon. Colin Meloy (lead vocals, guitar and main lead on song writing) left his band Tariko before moving to Oregon where he met Nate Query (bass) and was soon introduced to Jenny Conlee (keyboards, piano, organ and accordion). The three scored a silent film together which would set them up for a style of music heavy in creating a vivid picture inside the listeners mind of not only the story but also the characters created. By this time Meloy had already met Chris Funk (guitar and multi-instrumentalist) due to the fact Funk was a fan of Tariko but didn’t become an official member of The Decemberists until their third album. The band circulated through a number of drummers for their albums Castaways and Cutouts and Picaresque before finally inditing John Moen into the band for The Crane Wife.
The name ‘The Decemberists’ is a reference to the December revolt in Imperial Russia in 1825 and Meloy has always stated he wanted the name to evoke drama and melancholy. The name is completely fitting as the musical style of the band can range from upbeat pop to instrumental ballads but nearly all songs are an arrangement of whimsical, dark and political tales that can evoke events and themes from history such as ‘The Bagman’s Gambit.’
Listen to ‘The Bagman’s Gambit’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3oe4vlkoHE
From the years 2002-2010 the band were highly active and released six albums (Castaways and Cutouts, Her Majesty the Decemberists, Picaresque, The Crane Wife, The Hazards of Love and The King Is Dead). In 2003 the band changed labels from Hush Records to Kill Rock Stars and re-released their first album before moving onto their second. In 2004 ‘The Tain’ was released, an eighteen and a half minute single inspired by the Irish myth Tain Bo Cuailgne. The lyrics of the song do not directly quote the epic apart from ‘the mirror’s soft silver tain reflects our last and birthing hour.’ The song itself is haunting in an unexplainable way by its moments of upbeat tune and Funk’s guitar riffs combining with Meloy’s vocals to create something similar in sound to Love Spit Love. The music video created for the song is both mesmerising and unnerving in its shadow puppet-esque style.
Watch the music video for ‘The Tain’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOYZuaLg0J0
After self-producing ’16 Military Wives’ in 2005, the band’s equipment trailer was stolen but fan’s showed their unwavering support by contributing to a replacement fund along with the help of an organized fundraiser and other musicians such as Lee Kruger (The Shins) and The Dandy Warhols. Later that same year The Decemberists were singed to Capitol Records and were making plans to record their major debut with producers Tucker Martine and Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie) the following year. 2006 saw the release of the band’s third album but first with Capitol, The Crane Wife, and opened up a whole new world of opportunities for the musicians. The release of the album was accompanied by an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and began touring on October 17th. The album was voted favourite album of the year by NPR (National Public Radio) listeners and still remains one of the band’s most critically acclaimed records.
In 2008 the band began releasing a series of singles called Always the Bridesmaid every month until the end of the year. They followed this with a limited tour and performed in support of presidential candidate Barack Obama at a rally at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Oregon. The following year The Hazards of Love was released under Red Light Management and was initially intended to be a staged musical. However after some thought it was deemed the story would not work in a stage format and instead was played from start to finish during live shows. The album was inspired by Meloy’s fascination with the British folk revival in the 1960s and after finding a copy of Anne Brigg’s 1966 EP of the same name. The Hazards of Love tells the mythical story of a woman and her shapeshifting love, his fey queen mother and a cold blooded rake. The album includes guests vocals from Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond), Shara Nova (My Brightest Diamond), Jim James and Robyn Hitchcock (My Morning Jacket) and Rebecca Gates (The Spinanes). The sound of the album is a range of accordion infused pieces to heavy mental thunder.
Listen to an example of both here:
‘Isn’t It A Lovely Night?’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBIA2j9Xh14
‘The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeUHUYaT-WU
By 2011 the band had been nominated for Best Rock Song at the 54th Grammy Awards for their song ‘Down By The Water’ and had a No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with their 2010 album The King is Dead. After such a rise in so many years the band decided to take a hiatus during which time they featured on an episode of The Simpsons as hip new music teachers at Springfield Elementary. 2014 was the year of their return to The Decemberists and released What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World in 2015. Since their success and to celebrate the band’s return January 20th was officially declared ‘Decemberists Day’ in the band’s hometown by the mayor.
Still active, I eagerly wait for the band’s new music and encourage anyone with a taste for something just a little different to follow me down into the rabbit hole of The Decemberists.
By Skye W.Winwood