I've been trying to write this thing forever about a guy called Morgan. One chapter concerns his lifelong best friend, a caddish petty tyrant named Stanwix Stackless-Wells*. When people ask Morgan why he has remained friends with such an unrepentant scoundrel, stealer of comics, girlfriends and guitars, he can only think of one reason and a seemingly insubstantial one. That, when they were children, Stannie always played the best games of make believe. It was always French pirates stashing their loot in 18th century Cornwall or an heir to a large fortune traveling to Nepal to suss out the originator of a dastardly plot involving the Rothschild banking fortune and a very strange piece of jewelry. Those games, assisted by unused red velvet curtains acting as capes or a mother's yellow scarf as a swami's turban, were still vibrantly fresh in Morgan's mind. Even when, years later, he discovers that entire plots had been cribbed from various classic novels by Defoe, Sands, and Collins, nothing could diminish their exalted position in his memories and consequently, his life. The grown-up disaster was also the source of all that fantastical fun, how could he let that go?
Now, I'm not suggesting that Colin Meloy is a rake and a roue. I'm sure he's a perfectly nice guy, sitting at home on his comfy chair, writing his songs about teen hustlers and vengeful mariners. Nevertheless, when I listen to Picaresque by The Decemberists, I think of ole S.S.W. and his candle under the face shenanigans. Each song is another make believe game, another story too bizarre to be believed, too sad to recount, but behind it all you can see the artifice of the situation, the fake swords and drawn-on mustaches on baby faces. I adore that because it gives this album a sense of magic. You know that the title character of Eli the Barrow Boy
isn't really haunting the lane, forever bemoaning the loss of his love or that the protagonist in (From My Own True Love) Lost at Sea
only stalks her foggy Widow's Walk for a verse, chorus, verse but the belief which Meloy and his merry troupe of playmates invest in their performances makes you gladly go along for the ride. At least until someone's mother opens the door to ask if anyone's hungry.
While I enjoy listening to this album as a whole, because taken in sequence, it works like a serialized novel, currently I'm partial to The Bagman's Gambit
, a tale of a Washington, DC patsy duped by a femme fatale into giving up important government information. Aided by a simple but hypnotic guitar line, the story involves torture, bribery, and near misses. The poor narrator/mark keeps surprising himself with his nerve, frantically trying to save his inammorata, even though he knows that his efforts will also ensure he'll never see her again. It's a far, far better thing that I have done and all of that. The curtains and lighting is supplied, by the triumphant entry of the rest of the band at the 2:04 mark, like lights suddenly shined on the guilty. The song continues to weave it's narrative, through hush and swell of sound, through a noise terror bridge (well, the nicest, most polite noise terror), into a final image that works like a bittersweet movie still.
The Bagman's Gambit/The DecemberistsBuy Picaresque on Amazon
J and I went to see Colin Meloy last night at The Town Hall. Laura Veirs (written about before here
) opened and did some magic of her own by making a mini orchestra of herself through judicious use of loop pedals. Guitar and vocal line. STEP. Former stuff keeps playing. She harmonizes with herself. STEP. She plays another guitar line. STEP. Another harmony vocal line. STEP. And so on, and so on, slowly building a cathedral of song which hovered over the confused and leaning towards youthful audience**
Meloy performed Decemberists numbers and new songs next to a table decorated with a small sheep doll named Erick, a human skull dubbed Cheryl and a tiny ship called Maya Angelou. He jokingly said the skull was there to remind us all of our eventual demise and as he sang away his novelettes, I kept looking at Cheryl, wondering what she thought of the whole affair and the fact that, here she was, still employed. Meloy was affable and charming throughout, insisting he wanted a campfire feel and asking people to sing along which proved to be hilarious on a snap-happy rendition of Los Angeles, I'm Yours
(from 2003's Her Majesty) as the audience tried to vocally approximate the extended string passage. Later, he invited John Wesley Harding and his 12-string acoustic to join him on a couple of Shirley Collins numbers which were great but seemed to go WAY over the more Emo-ly inclined well-coiffed heads. Too bad, I love those British folk revivalists and personally, given Meloy's performing style, don't see much of a difference between him covering them or Morrissey. Which he did later, after teasing with tiny bits of Pink Floyd's Fearless
and The Replacements' Can't Hardly Wait
, with a slowed down, reverential take on Ask
by The Smiths.
Well, Mr. Meloy, I had a fun time. Please say thank you to your mom for the snacks. Next time, invite your friends!
NB: Contributor Mike
wrote a post on This Sporting Life here
on Soft Communication. Do read, if you missed it the first time.*
I wanted an appropriately ridiculous archaic sounding name. The kind of name given by parents who are into Melville and taxidermy.**
'Cept for Lou Reed, standing in the back, arms crossed, by the doors, where you couldn't miss him. His primate etched in mahogany visage scowling in...concentration? Hunger? I had to fight the most intense urge to run over and kick him in the balls and run out cackling, dolphin-style. Man, I love living in the city. It affords me these fantasies.+
Just to be clear, like anyone with ears and sense, I love Reed's contribution to music. Still, I daydream about pummeling him. I can't imagine I'm alone here.
Labels: Colin Meloy, D