Getting to know The Decemberists

The Decemberists

Photo courtesy of Alison Tarnofsky
The Decemberists

I don’t like Radiohead. I always feel like I’ll be shunned out of the music world whenever someone brings up their latest whatever, and I’m stuck making the “ehhh” face. I can’t pin down what it is, but the way people throw a fit about this band just feeds my cynicism and allows me to keep telling myself that their music is more about pretension than anything else.

All that said, I’ve never really given Radiohead a genuine chance.

I think there are a lot of people that might feel about The Decemberists the way I feel about Radiohead. Granted Radiohead is a different scene, but the gist of it is the same.

The Decemberists have been slotted into many genres; folk rock, indie rock, progressive rock, art rock, and baroque pop-and among all of those, there’s just not a better example of today’s “indie band.”

Front man Colin Meloy has been the shining stereotype of the bespectacled indie darling since the band first started producing albums in 2001. The Decemberists’ first album, “5 Songs,” was self-released by the band and later re-released by Hush. From Hush, the band moved to the Kill Rock Stars label and from there the musicians were finally signed to the major label Capitol Records in 2005. By all technical definitions, they’re really not an indie band anymore, but their captivating sound hasn’t changed.

The band is widely recognized for its use of unusual instruments, including accordions, Hammond organs, Wurlitzer organs, banjos and the upright bass, among others. The rich layering of sounds and Meloy’s witty, intelligent lyrics cut a clear a path through the angst of modern music. He brings the listener along to recount dark epics, mythological tales and historical events from around the world.

The music is deep and rich, and often ominous. The band moves effortlessly between sea shanties in “A Cautionary Song,” accordion laced dirges, like “Odalisque,” whimsical smart-pop as in “The Sporting Life” and “Sixteen Military Wives,” and bass-driven 70s soul in “The Perfect Crime 2.”

From “5 Songs” to “Castaways and Cutouts,” through “Her Majesty,” “The Decemberists,” and “Picaresque,” The Decemberists have developed and refined themselves. Signing to a major label has had peculiar effects on bands in the past, but The Decemberists went on to release their riskiest and most intricate album yet, “The Crane Wife,” under Capitol’s brand.

“The Crane Wife” ranked number 41 of Pitchfork Media’s Top 50 Albums of 2006. Spin magazine reviewed, “Meloy uses an ancient Japanese folktale about a fallen bird as a loose storytelling framework and kicks poetic, often interlocking rhymes about lovelorn soldiers and gun-toting rapists. His verses are sharp and smart, though a bit scholarly. Unless you’re up on your ornithology, “Wife” is likely the only major-label release of the year to require referencing”

I’ve been told that one must “warm up” to Radiohead, that you have to start in a specific place in their musical chronology or it just doesn’t piece together. If someone were to create an “Intro to Radiohead” playlist, I guarantee that I’d sit down and start seriously listening.

In that vein, I’ve created an “Intro to The Decemberists” playlist, because I think it’s important to hear how the band progresses, it certainly makes it all more interesting. These are my essentials, arranged in listening order, with the song first and the album listed second:

1. Shiny – 5 Songs EP

2. July, July! – Castaways and Cutouts

3. Odalisque – Castaways and Cutouts

4. The Legionnaire’s Lament – Castaways and Cutouts

5. California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade – Castaways and Cutouts

6. Los Angeles, I’m Yours – Her Majesty The Decemberists

7. I Was Meant for the Stage – Her Majesty The Decemberists

8. As I Rise – Her Majesty The Decemberists

9. We Both Go Down Together – Picaresque

10. 16 Military Wives – Picaresque

11. The Engine Driver – Picaresque

12. The Mariner’s Revenge Song – Picaresque

13. The Crane Wife 3 – The Crane Wife

14. Sons and Daughters – The Crane Wife

15. Record Year – Always the Bridesmaid (Singles Collection) Released December 2nd!

These are fifteen songs that will make up the best half hour of your life. Listen, love them, and keep making smart music choices.

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