The Decemberists: improving with age

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve heard that rock and roll has been declared dead. The memo hasn’t gotten out to the band The Dememberists. In January, the band released its latest album, What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World that is probably its best album in its fifteen-year history. This is good news because most bands do their best work near their beginning. The Decemberists are proving the exception to the rule while also proving that rock music is certainly not dead.

Of course rock and roll won’t be killed anymore than jazz was killed. Instead it has spawned many offshoots. Some music marked as rock doesn’t quite qualify. The 1968 album Blood, Sweat & Tears by the “rock” band of the same name is not really a rock album at all, but more of a jazz album with some classical music thrown in. The Decemberists deliver rock songs, but they are also do folk rock and generate a lot of ordinary folk music as well. Indie rock is how the musicologists like to categorize the band. The label doesn’t matter much to me, but the content sure does.

The Decemberists are a small band oriented around the singer and songwriter Colin Meloy and based out of Portland, Oregon. Meloy is a gifted songwriter but with a so-so voice. Do not expect a voice like Adele out of Meloy. Meloy’s tunes though are pretty infectious. For an album to cement itself in my brain though, I need more than infectious music. I need great lyrics too, and this is where Meloy shines. He can compactly meld the poetry with music, leading to tunes that are both infectious but not vapid. In this album we get many such bountiful lyrics including:

And I
Seventeen and terminally fey
I wrote it down and threw it all away
Never gave a thought to what I paid
And you
All sibylline, reclining in your pew
You tattered me, you tethered me to you
The things you would and wouldn’t do
To tell the truth I never had a clue

So this kind of rock music gets my attention. Rather than be one song after another focused on love, we get a variety of vignettes and musings about life dressed up with music. While Meloy provides a frame and common tune, it gets even more interesting when the rest of the band combines their talents to turn the songs into a synergistic experience, mostly using instrumentation to combine complex harmonies that complement the main tunes. With Meloy doing most of the singing, it’s easy to get the impression that he monopolizes the group. However, band members Chris Funk (mostly guitar), Jenny Conlee (most keyboard stuff), Nate Query (bass) and John Moen (drums) do a great job of complementing the music and making it feel almost orchestrated.

The result is this latest album should resonate with mind, body and soul. The album includes quite a potpourri of melodies from the serious to the somber to the hilarious. The common theme though is that they all quickly cement themselves in your brain. Some highlights:

  • In The Singer Addresses His Audience, Meloy sings about the weird experience of having groupies and the odd things they do, including cutting their hair to look like drummer Moen’s.
  • Calvary Captain probably proves the most infectious tune on the album, in which a guy asserts that he is not just special but her one and only.
  • Philomena is apparently an ode to cunnilingus, or rather one man’s frustration that his girlfriend Philomena won’t let him “go down”. The arrangement here is particularly inventive.
  • Make You Better plumbs a romantic relationship and how it inevitably moves from infatuation toward clear-eyed realism.
  • Lake Song seems to be a continuation of the theme in Make You Better.
  • Better Not Wake the Baby betrays the group’s folk roots since it is not the least bit rock and roll.
  • Anti-summersong is another folk song with perhaps the second most memorable tune on the album.
  • 12/17/12 is about Meloy’s feelings of being pulled both ways on the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting: great joy in the potential of his new child combined with the horror of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut.

I’d encourage you to give it a spin but since CD’s are obsolete these days, give it a stream on your streaming music service instead. This is a really excellent album and makes me hopeful that as the band matures their music will continue to do so as well.

An Evening with Don McLean

The Thinker by Rodin

Popular musicians often fade into undeserved obscurity. Don McLean, who wrote American Pie, is one of these musicians. Most Americans know him only for American Pie, a brilliant 1971 song interweaving an irresistible tune with delicious metaphorical lyrics. American Pie is arguably the definitive coming of age song for his generation. In fact, a Billboard poll ranked American Pie fifth among the top 365 songs of the 20th century.

Unlike other popular musicians whose lives were cut short, at age 64 Don McLean is blessedly still among the living. I can report that his voice is still quite fine, as I heard him perform last night at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. He and his band delivered a satisfying show full of favorites, his most brilliant (though lesser known) tunes, as well as various collections of folk tunes, not all of which he wrote. In short, McLean is a living American musical icon who now plays in smaller venues but who has lost almost none of his talent.

I know many people who have reverent feelings about Bob Dylan. I certainly respect Bob Dylan’s talent and like McLean, he can still draw in crowds, although he too often plays in smaller venues. Like McLean, Dylan’s lyrics can often be mysterious and metaphorical, but arguably, McLean has a better voice, is a more accomplished musician and is more inventive than Dylan. To me there is genius to be found among the few artists that combine great lyrics with a memorable tune. In my opinion, McLean is the contemporary master of this genre and American Pie is just one example of many for aficionados of this genre to savor.

Not all of McLean’s songs are full of imponderable lyrics. Many are quite ordinary. At his best, McLean is an expert at plumbing the depths of the human soul with music. What makes McLean almost unique is that he is poet that can consistently wrap music around his stunning poetry. Take for example the lyrics to one of his lesser-known but brilliant songs that he performed last night, Magdalene Lane:

Magdalene Lane is the red light domain
where everyone’s soul is for sale.
A piece of your heart will do for a start
but you can send us the rest in the mail.

For we have our own families to feed
and we can’t let them starve just for you.
Well, we’d rather not watch while you bleed
so come back in an hour when you’re through.

I went to hear McLean last night not for American Pie, but for lesser-known but arguably better songs like Magdalene Lane. This song, a sort of marriage of poetry and music is excruciatingly hard to find in any venue. Moreover, at 64, McLean still has the vocal range to carry it off. He joked about his age between sets. “A lot of you came here nervous. You were wondering, ‘I heard him in 78. Does he suck now?’” The answer, thankfully, is not at all. While his face is lined, his hair is now mixed with gray, and his belly broader, as the fortieth anniversary of American Pie approaches, McLean still has it. It is harder to say the same about Bob Dylan. His lyrics may be as imponderable as ever, but his age is showing in his voice, which is becoming increasingly gravely. McLean has some issues hitting the higher registers and may change the music a bit to accommodate, but otherwise he is the same gifted musician who gave us American Pie in 1971.

And speaking of American Pie, McLean is savvy enough to know that he has to play the song at any venue, so he gave us the full rendition, not the clipped version that you hear on the radio, as well as invited the audience to sing along in the choruses. He has doubtless sung the song a thousand times. Both he and his band must be sick of it, but he delivered like a trooper, including a last reprise of the first verse. It was shortly followed by his other required song, the much more introspective Vincent, which sketches the meaning of the life of the artist Vincent van Gogh. Most Americans are not familiar with it, but to a Don McLean fan, it is a must-be-heard-live song. Who can resist with lyrics like these?

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflecting Vincent’s eyes of China blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hands

Don McLean performed one other lesser-known hit of his last night. It is perhaps the most romantic song written in the 20th century, and a choice at eclectic weddings and, as he joked, playing in elevators near you: And I Love You So.

And I love you so
The people ask me how
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them I don’t know

I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again
The day you took my hand

It’s hard not to cry and impossible not to give your spouse a kiss after hearing this song.

If you have a chance to see Don McLean, do not assume he is washed up. Buy the tickets and celebrate the occasion. I did not learn about his performance until Friday night and I could still find two tickets for my wife and I. Even living legends like Don McLean cannot live forever. And if all you know of Don McLean is American Pie, you will probably be delighted to discover a brilliant musician whose artistry is so much broader than this one hit song.

You can find out if he is playing near you by going to his web site.