The Decemberists are a curious rock band if ever there was one. They are more than capable of pomposity, like the old prog-rock bands Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer. They can be precious, like coy singer-songwriter James Taylor. They are oddly theatrical, coming off like a bunch of high school musical theater types. They got them a fiddle player and saxophones—one part Dave Matthews Band, one part Elephant Six Collective band. They have smarty-pants literary cred, using big words in lyrical stories set in previous centuries. They are exponents of nerd-rock—thick black glasses on their lead singer. And why does the guy, Colin Meloy, sing in a strange faux-British accent?
But for all this, The Decemberists are fun. All the potentially horrible trimmings are not the meal—the meal consists of terrific melodies, compelling stories, and careful pop songcraft. The fiddle fits. The accordion accompaniment is neither hokey nor forced. The core of the band is Meloy, strumming a guitar, letting loose with catchy tunes. Pop music as it ever was—but smart and sincere.
Though The Decemberists latest disc, The Crane Wife, was released on major label Capitol Records, A Practical Handbook is a Kill Rock Stars production, primarily consisting of a concert recorded in November 2005, when the band was still with the indie label based in the Pacific Northwest—also the home base of Meloy and his crew. Recorded at Portland, Oregon’s Roseland Theater, the concert is colorfully captured before a friendly, enthusiastic, indie-rific crowd.
The whole thing works. Meloy lifts his chin slightly as his singing surges up to flashes of emotion. He wears a red-and-white striped blazer, carefully avoiding a too-emo look. Jenny Conlee, on keyboards and backing vocals, is a funky foil whose goofy grins and enthusiasm keep her Hammond swirls and Wurlitzer grooves popping along. The rhythm section doesn’t pose, and the violin and singing from Petra Haden (jazz bassist Charlie Haden’s daughter) color things just enough. And on a song like “16 Military Wives”, where the lyric “La di dah, di dah, di ditty-dah, di dah” is the hook, it is somehow essential that the whole package not cloy.
And that is miracle of The Decemberists. It ought to cloy, but it does not.
Let’s look at “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, the potentially most ridiculous song in the concert. Guitarist Chris Funk is playing a mandolin, and the accordion whips up an old-fashioned-sounding oom-pah groove. Nate Query plays stand-up bass, and Meloy sings a woeful tale of a son’s revenge for his mother’s ruin that winds up in the belly of a whale. Sure, it’s an elaborate mess of a sort—involving changing time signatures and the firing off of one of those guns that releases a little flag saying “BANG!” But the band simply has fun with it. It’s not Spinal Tap-elaborate, but more a knowing construction of goofiness. When it all ends on an increasingly fast repeated lick that sounds like an Irish drinking song, the crowd cheers. You might, too.
When The Decemberists return to the stage for their encores, however, it’s just pure popcraft. “The Chimbley Sweep” is a rocking little façade of biography, as if Dickens had gotten into the rock business. “I Was Meant for the Stage” is a an affecting ballad that induces audience-swaying, the kind of song that could be covered effectively and that reminds a viewer that the novelty of the band’s act is almost always balanced by a simple requirement—terrific songs.
In addition to the concert footage, A Practical Handbook contains a cute little documentary that covers the band’s origins and their recording of the album Picaresque in a loony, abandoned church. A portrait of a band on the rise but not yet quite there, the film seems particularly notable now that Meloy and crew are on a major label and, as I write this, touring huge spaces with the aid of no less than major symphony orchestras.
Orchestra-less, you see Meloy playing to near-empty clubs, strumming away at his acoustic, spinning his sea-shanty tales and Victorian fantasies, and pirate imaginings. He talks about his college band, its demise, his scramble to find new bandmates just from hanging out in the Portland scene and meeting people. In fact, the story of The Decemberists sounds so much like every other local band’s story that it seems like it could almost be your story.
The video from the Picaresque sessions, however, makes clear that Meloy is not you. He sings with passionate perfection, and the band melds a sound in a magical way. As you listen to them more, they differentiate themselves and grow on you. The sheer size of the project—being marshaled into being by Death Cab producer Chris Walla—almost seems Springsteenesque as the various instruments (hurdy-gurdies, mandolins, hand percussion) pile up and become something monumental. By the end of the documentary, you can understand how what first seemed like almost a folk band might seem part of a new movement in indie-rock, along with Arcade Fire, for instance, toward a new kind of progressive overstatement.
Finally, the package is topped off with several oddball music videos—mere after-dinner mints, really. The force and fun of the DVD remains in the concert, where the madcap energy of a surging band at the end of a tour for a potentially classic album comes directly off the screen at you. Though The Decemberists remain a dangerously cute act, the compensating riches of the melodies and arrangements are more than enough to keep me smiling. I recommend you join me.