The Decemberists could be considered one terrific indie rock band, its affiliation with a major label — Capitol Records — notwithstanding. No, wait: make that one great rock band, period. To their way of thinking, quirkiness isn’t simply a substitute for creativity, and even though they hail from a hotbed of free-flowing expression — that being their home city, Portland Oregon — they make a sound with enough mainstream appeal to qualify as contenders for chart topping success. The fact that they’re signed to a big corporate record company hasn’t diminished their prowess or their reputation, but it has instead affirmed their penchant for punchy, accessible melodies that effectively take hold from the first notes on. Still, it’s little surprise that their first record company signing was to the unapologetically insurgent Kill Rock Stars label, given their sometimes eccentric approach, one punctuated by a fascination with topics of a historical nature and an odd obsession with seafaring lore and period pieces of obscure origin.
How they manage to merge this sometimes obtuse lyricism with such bright and distinctive melodies is, again, a reflection of their charm. Indeed, their origins play out like the best John-meets-Paul scenario as revisited through the convergence of the Byrds or the Buffalo Springfield. The group formed after singer/songwriter Colin Meloy left his Montana-based band Tarkio and moved to Portland, where he met bassist Nate Query who, in turn, introduced him to a former bandmate, Jenny Conlee, a versatile keyboard player who could double on accordion. He had earlier been met guitarist Chris Funk, who had struck an interest in Meloy’s work with Tarkio. Funk was deputized to play pedal steel on the first two Decemberists albums, but was eventually inducted as a full-time member by the time the third album rolled around. In typical Pete Best fashion, it took a short succession of drummers before John Moen was hired to fill the drummer role. As for the name itself, it’s taken from what was known as the Decemberist Revolt, an 1825 uprising in czarist Russia, although Meloy has also claimed it also refers to “the drama and melancholy” that typifies the weather in the month of December.
That seems like an odd explanation given the band’s tuneful melodies and generally cheery disposition. And if one would measure it by the group’s new EP, Florasongs, some might suggest they change their story all together. Only five songs in length, it could easily best many long-players offered up by the competition. It’s dominated by a softer stance, with “Riverswim”, “Stateside” and “Why Would I know?” all sweet acoustic ballads both winning and winsome. “Why Would I Now?” in particular ranks as one of their prettiest songs ever, and if that doesn’t win over the uninitiated, one has to wonder if anything would.
Still, a five-song EP might be considered simply a tease to Decemberists devotees, something to savour prior to another full length. No matter though; it’s always a joy to have a new Decemberists disc, regardless of the reason. Or the season.