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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
THE DECEMBERISTS Royal Festival Hall, London, October 2nd 2007
The Decemberists are very clever. Front man and song writer Chris Meloy went to college and studied creative writing, and also spent a while as a drama student before turning to rock and roll. That’s probably why there is so much creativity and drama in their songs. ‘Literate’ is a word that often used to describe them, ‘idiosyncratic’ is another. So take this as an example: “she's a salty little pisser with your cock in her kisser”.
It’s from ‘The tain’, which opens tonight’s concert, and it’s okay because it’s faux sea-shantyish lyrics. You have to get used to faux, because between the creative, the dramatic, the literary and the idiosyncratic there’s a lot of faux in the Decemberists’ work. They contrive (yes – there’s a lot of that too) to inhabit a faux Victorian (or is it Edwardian?) landscape, full of mariners, murderers, mistresses, mayhem and melancholy – oh yes, and let’s not forget the whales. And more than a nod to Russian history (give or take an ‘e’), but I don’t have to explain that to you do I? If you’re reading this then you’re clever too.
Bouillabaisse It’s all jumbled together with the music, the costumes and outfits, and the neat graphics (many, if not all, by Meloy’s partner Carson Ellis) to produce a melange, or perhaps Serge, in a more maritime sense, a bouillabaisse of safely edgy nostalgia, tinged with a studied air of eccentricity. But the Decemberists are very clever. To the surprise of many they left indie label Kill All Rockstars who had nurtured their talent and signed for Capitol in 2005.
The resulting album, The Crane Wife, has been lauded by the critics – “an amazing, innovative, storytelling record”, “an impressively realized song cycle”, “bold and wondrous entertainment”. The latter was from the Guardian, and it’s a Guardianesque bookish lot in the house tonight, overwhelming the indie kids by a significant degree. But you see the Decemberists are clever. Guardian readers are clever. Clever likes clever.
Perhaps the crusty crowd are also here because the Decemberists music reminds them of some of the bands they were brought up with. Actually it is such a derivative sound that it could be almost all of the bands they were brought up with. They acknowledge a debt to British folk rockers such as Fairport Convention (oddly Meloy often sounds a bit like Fairport’s’ Chris Leslie) but if you listen to the songs carefully you’ll hear more than a little REM (very much from the Out of Time era), and the Beatles and I don’t know who else. Actually I do – ‘Perfect crime #2’ which really gets the audience into gear is straight out of the early Talking Heads oeuvre. Now I know that all bands take ideas from other artists, borrow a bit here, pay tribute there (Meloy, I think is a Morrissey fan – listen to ‘The sporting life’) but when you come away from a gig thinking mainly of all the bands that you think you might have heard in the course of a performance, rather than the one who was actually playing, then you might think things have gone a bit too far. And while we’re at it they’ve also tried unconvincingly to dress in a gothic mantle of horror and violence, with songs like ‘Culling of the fold’ – “We’ve never recorded this one because it’s way too violent”.
But it’s primary school stuff (“Dash her on the paving stones, it may break your heart to break her bones, but someone’s got to do, the culling of the fold”) compared to the viciousness of the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads (“Well Jerry Bellows, he hugged his stool, closed his eyes and shrugged and laughed, and with an ashtray as big as a fucking really big brick I split his head in half. His blood spilled across the bar like a steaming scarlet brook”), or the darkness of someone like Johnny Dowd. As I said, it’s all a bit mixed up (like a cassoulet perhaps?) and rather faux. Cassoulet
That having been said – it is pretty good fun. The Royal Festival Hall is a hard gig to pull off and the Meloy and his colleagues seem a little overawed at the start. But their playing is excellent and Meloy makes an unlikely animated front man. Eventually, assisted by drummer John Moen, he manages to engage the audience with some entertaining participation stuff, particularly in their tour de force set-closer ‘The Mariner’s revenge song’, which, if you’re not familiar with their work, certainly captures all of the good points, if not a few of the bad as well. The big song of the night was ‘The crane wife 1 & 2’ – I suppose it’s an epic number, and irritatingly it has that magical property to send a shiver down your spine, even if you’re trying not to like it. That is quality song writing.
Wow But it was listening to it again (and ‘Praise the Infanta’) after the show that I had my true and ghastly insight about the Decemberists which will, I’m sure, endear me to no-one. Anyway – I’ll simply mention the Strawbs, and say no more. Need I say more? Except to add a throwaway conversation heard in the cloakroom at the end between some very excited yoofs. “Yeah cool man, we got the set lists”. “Awesome dude. I got a plectrum”. “Man that’s nothing – I got an earplug”.
Oh yes – and sadly I read that the band have cancelled the rest of their European tour due to illness. A great shame because they’ve clearly got many dedicated fans who’ll be upset to miss them. Get well soon. - Nick Morgan

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