As a solo performer, Meloy acts knowingly awkward and charming, but when he sings he plays it straight, making for a disc with few surprises.
Between tours with the Decemberists, Colin Meloy has made a habit out of trekking off on small solo tours to keep himself busy. These tours, often more intimate than the grandiose Decemberists productions, are as known for their exclusive covers EPs as they are for their performances. But here, on Colin Meloy Sings Live!, the public at-large is given a glimpse into these solo shows. And while it might not have the rare charm of tour EPs Colin Meloy Sings Morrissey or Colin Meloy Sings Shirley Collins, it offers the same picture of Colin Meloy not as band leader, but as aspiring folk singer.
The track list here is culled from a 2006 tour and then meshed together to feel like one entire show. It is a diverse selection of tracks that covers songs from any and all Decemberists releases that predate The Crane Wife, as well as songs from Meloy's old band Tarkio, and some rare material. The songs fans are most likely to be familiar with, the Decemberists material, are the most interesting thing about this release. To see the songs in a barer state should shed them in a new light.
Of course, should is the operative word. For the most part, to hear Meloy play these songs solo is not much different from the full-band versions. "The Engine Driver" and "We Both Go Down Together" sound good solo, but no more intimate for the lack of instrumentation. "Red Right Ankle" is good, too, but sounds nearly identical to its studio counterpart.
Where Meloy takes his risks here are on longer tracks. He tries his hand at "The Gymnast High Above the Ground" and "California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade" and the results are mixed. Of the two, "The Gymnast High Above the Ground" fares better, since it doesn't have all the crucial changes that "California One" has. In fact, in some ways "The Gymnast High Above the Ground" works better here than on record, since it sounds more inviting without all the production sheen of the Her Majesty record. Meanwhile, Meloy can't quite figure out what to do on his own with the breakdown in the middle of "California One", and while he taps his inner Morrissey fanboy at the end of the track, singing a bit of the Smiths' "Ask", the small surprise isn't enough to make the song work.
That sort of surprise works much better when he delivers his stripped-down version of "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect". The song is one of the best performances here, and supports the theory that the band started as a folk act and have slowly (and not necessarily badly) veered away from that path. At the end of the song, he drifts into Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams". And while he only sings a few lines, he belts them out and they fit in well with the song. Where "Ask" feels tacked on, "Dreams" sounds meshed in.
The rare songs are just as much of a mixed bag. New song "Wonder", a tribute to childbirth and Meloy's new role as parent, is a little too lyrically goofy for its serious tone. The Shirley Collins-arranged "Barbara Allen" is solid, but his insistence on pronouncing the title name "Barbry" is grating. The Tarkio track that opens the disc, "Devil's Elbow", is the best of the unknown here, as Meloy lovingly pays tribute to his homeland, the northwest.
And this is the give and take of Colin Meloy Sings Live!. Some of it sounds disappointingly like versions we've already heard. Some of it just doesn't work solo. And some of it succeeds beautifully. As a solo performer, Meloy plays up his dorky charm. He invites the crowd to hear a snippet of "the worst song he ever wrote", called "Dracula's Daughter". He jokingly asks them to head-bang to a Shirley Collins folk song. All in all, Meloy sounds comfortable on stage, which makes some of the slower moments on the disc forgivable, but not forgivable enough for this record to shake the label of "inessential".