The Decemberists: The Decemberists [DVD]

The Decemberists are fun; terrific melodies, compelling stories, and careful pop songcraft.

The Decemberists

The Decemberists

MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: A Practical Handbook
Label: Kill Rock Stars
UK Release Date: Available as import
US Release Date: 2007-03-20
Artist website

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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