Monday, March 23, 2009


Uncut, April issue

Whip-smart concept album twists the esoteric into arresting new shapes, makes a compelling case for the album as enduring art form.

Since relocating from his hometown of Missoula, Montana, to Portland, Oregon, and forming the Decemberists in 2000, Colin Meloy has been embedding archaic verbiage into songs that draw on the British electric-folk movement—particularly Fairport Convention—and prog-rock fantasias. Along the way, the lyrics of this former creative writing major have hewn to a rigorous style that evokes the rollicking seafaring yarns of Patrick O’Brian and the fabulist fiction of Steven Millhauser, with whom Meloy shares a piquant sense of irony. These aspects are readily apparent in the song titles themselves: “The Legionnaire’s Lament” from 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts, “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” from 2003’s Her Majesty, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” from 2005’s Picaresque and “The Shankhill Butchers” from The Crane Wife.

This penchant for tongue-in-cheek arcana (I suspect he’d spell his lyrics in Middle English just for laughs if he could get away with it) is accompanied by a thematic ambition that manifests itself in extended pieces like The Tain, a five-part, nearly 19-minute piece based on the ancient Irish epic poem of the same title) that takes up an entire EP, and the three-part title song of The Crane Wife, which spans 15 minutes-plus. Both are laden with orchestral motifs and movements crisply executed with standard rock instrumentation. Given all of the above, it’s a good thing that Meloy possesses a wicked sense of humor, and that his band plays with such visceral intensity.

The Hazards of Love, then, stands as a culmination of all these tendencies. Set in an enchanted forest, it’s a 17-track suite (I hesitate to call it a rock opera, but the term wouldn’t be far off) of striking musical and verbal intricacy that unfolds over the course of nearly an hour. This thumbnail description makes the album sound stultifying, but this is far from the case, thanks to a steady stream of surprises and a depth of detail that reveals itself incrementally, like the layers of an onion. But it takes just one listen for the key melodies, refrains and riffs to ingrain themselves, because they keep leaping out of the fabric. The title song gets no less than four parallel treatments over 18 minutes, the deliriously melodic “The Wanting Comes in Waves” comes up twice and the twinkling guitar figure from Chris Funk (who’s a cross between Richard Thompson and Wilco’s Nels Cline) that first appears in “A Bower Scene” and recurs in “The Abduction of Margaret.”

As always, Meloy sings with the accent of an American actor imitating an Englishman in a 1930s film, and one might expect that this stylized approach might get tiresome over time, but that’s a non-issue on The Hazards of Love. He shares the lead vocal duties with Lavender Diamond’s Becky Sharp, presumably chosen to play the part of the imperiled heroine Margaret because she’s the closest approximation of Sandy Denny Meloy could find, and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, who attacks her part as the forest queen with the confrontational eroticism of Heart’s Ann Wilson tearing into “Barracuda”. Additionally, the album is bedecked with stacked harmonies, with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and the Spinanes’ Rebecca Gates joining in here and there. The guest list is completed by Robyn Hitchcock, who plays electric on a mid-album instrumental interlude – and whose “My Wife and My Dead Wife” would have fit right into this plot.

The Decemberists are now on their second major label album (having timed the jump perfectly, as did Death Cab For Cutie), and their following has grown to the extent that they filled the 18,000-seat Hollywood Bowl in a 2007 concert with the L.A. Philharmonic. In short, they know exactly what they’re doing, and that includes making sure their concept albums contain at least one hooky stand-alone track for airplay and encores. The last album contained “The Perfect Crime #2,” a pumping rocker that picked up where “Life During Wartime” left off, and The Hazards of Love sports “The Rake’s Song,” powered by a springy single-note acoustic riff from Meloy and savage drumming from John Moen, who plays with the relentless precision of Radiohead’s Phil Selway. The lyric concerns another cold-blooded killer, who systematically offs his children, celebrates when his wife dies in childbirth and, once he’s finally free, expresses relief rather than remorse. The tale would be horrific and tasteless if set in the modern world and described in straightforward language, but in Meloy’s deft hands it comes off like a newly discovered chapter of The Canterbury Tales.

If there’s a movie version, the Coen Brothers need to get the first call.

First things first, Colin: How do you follow what is essentially a Chaucerian rock opera? Pete Townshend followed Tommy with Quadrophenia; a scary precedent.
Wait. . .who?. . . what? Who wrote a Chaucerian rock opera? Did I? Hmmmm.

You mention a connection between Fairport and Black Sabbath, and I’m picking up a bit of Jethro Tull and even Heart. Specifically, what did you draw on musically from British electric folk and classic rock?
I was listening to the Smiths and Hüsker Dü during what should've been my teenage metal-stoner phase. I'm belatedly living it out now. I dress exclusively in nicotine-soaked denim and stand across the street from my house at lunch time, smoking cigarettes and hitting a 3' bong named "Schindler's Twist." My wife and child are understandably concerned.

I imagine you prowling used-book stores in search of source material. What are your primary literary reference points? Anything contemporary to go with the antique?
You do? What else do you imagine me doing? I'm thrilled that I seem to live a parallel life in your imagination. I wonder if you wouldn't mind imagining me lying in some quiet hammocked tropical veranda, drinking a mai-thai and being fanned by a modestly dressed "Breathless"-era Jean Seberg. Thanks. Perhaps you=2 0could imagine me reading some Dave Eggers, Gary Shteyngart or George Saunders -- they are three of my favorite contemporary writers.

Following this line, what do traditional idioms and classic literature tell us about modern-day issues?
As far as I can tell, the Brit folk revivalist were by and large drawn to songs that involved drinking, murder and rape. Anne Briggs' first record, the namesake of ours, "The Hazards of Love," included 4 songs that warned of just that -- the apparent hazards of being an amorous person in the auld days. I believe there were relatively more dangers that could befall your typical Spenserian teenager. A lack of prophylactic being a major contributor to this. But I a lot of those dangers remain the same. It's of the "don't talk to strangers" cloth.

Did the narrative lead you toward any particular themes, or vice versa?
I suppose so. I was just following the example of a bunch of old folk songs I was into at the time. They supplied the themes mostly.

Like “Perfect Crime” before it, “The Rake’s Song” doubles as a supremely catchy single, and another homicidal one as well. It’s intriguing how this corrosive and disturbing subject matter is acceptable when couched in archaic rather than modern language.
Yeah. I think that's one of the things that the folk revivalists were into. A lot of women singers of that era were arranging songs in which misogyny and rape figured kind of largely. I think they discovered it was safer to explore those sorts of themes in older songs -- it also gives an interesting perspective into sex relations in the 16th century.

With its seamlessness, this is emphatically an ALBUM in a singles era. Were you consciously doing your part to preserve or advance the form?
I don't know, not really. It just worked, I guess. I've always been a fan of ostentatious narrative records. This is our contribution to that form.

Hypothetically, if this story were to be made into a movie, what directors would be on your short list to bring it to life? I’m thinking Coen brothers…
Guy Maddin. Full stop.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


1. "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," Beck, War Child Presents Heroes
2. "Get On Your Boots," U2, No Line on the Horizon
3. "No You Girls," Franz Ferdinand, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
4. "The Rake's Song," The Decemberists, The Haazards of Love
5. "The Bones Of You," Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid (2008)
6. "Magnificent," U2, No Line on the Horizon
7. "My Love," The Bird and the Bee, Ray Guns Are Not the Future
8. "Don't Wanna Cry," Pete Yorn, Back and Forth (June release)
9. "No Line on the Horizon," U2, No Line on the Horizon
10. "Eyes on the Horizon," Brendan Benson, unreleased
11. "Love at the End of the World," Sam Roberts, Love at the End of the World
12. "Ulysses," Franz Ferdinand, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
13. "Down in the Flood," Derek Trucks Band, Already Free
14. "Never Had Nobody Like You," M. Ward, Hold Time
15. "Fixed to Ruin," Sam Roberts, Love at the End of the World
16. "Breathe," U2, No Line on the Horizon
17. "You Belong to Me," The Like, War Child Presents Heroes
18. "Move You (SSSPII)," Anya Marina, Slow & Steady Seduction: Phase II
19. "My Girls," Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
20. "Unknown Caller," U2, No Line on the Horizon

Friday, March 20, 2009


Uncut, March issue

Lo-fi tinkerer completes his transfiguration into major artist.

When Matt Ward released his first solo album, Duet For Guitars #2, in 1999, he appeared to be yet another hermit in his bedroom with a 4-track recorder, inhabiting his private universe at the margins of the bustling indie scene. But through the course of the ’00s, the Portland, Oregon, native has progressively shown himself to be a multitalented art monster, popping up all over the map and establishing himself as a go-to guy musician. Among his many accomplishments: touring and recording with the comparably ambitious Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes; co-producing and playing guitar on Rabbit Fur Coat, the first album of Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis; forming She & Him with actress/singer Zooey Deschanel and concocting 2008’s soft-rock homage Volume One; and making significant contributions to the records of artists ranging from Cat Power to Beth Orton and Norah Jones.

Meanwhile, Ward’s own albums have incrementally expanded on the artist’s lo-fi roots, which put him alongside such fingerpicking solipsists as the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, Smog’s Bill Callahan, Will Oldham and fellow Portlander Elliott Smith. His studio output, which now stands at six LPs, reveals him as a virtuoso guitarist and expressive singer, a passionate conservator of American roots music and a purveyor of Big Themes. All that is special about Ward is encapsulated in the captivating “Chinese Translation” from 2006’s Post-War; it's an epic metaphysical parable enclosed in a lilting alt-country song, embedding poetic verbiage about the cycle of life into the playful arrangement with a Swiss watchmaker’s precision.

Ward’s heady and ambitious sixth studio album, Hold Time, finds him delving deeper into the sounds and themes of Post-War and “Chinese Translation”. The LP will undoubtedly be perceived by some as a religious tract because its rich Biblical imagery and intimations of immortality – and yes, he does thank God in his acknowledgments. But Hold Time is not an album-long testimony of belief; instead, it plays out as an extended meditation on the preciousness of time, the dance of life and death, and what evidence man can perceive of a spiritual dimension in the physical universe.

After the hushed opener “For Beginners,” the first of several contemplations of sin and salvation, Ward wastes no time connecting divine love with its human corollary. On “Nobody Like You”, he describes the redemptive power of true love via a lyric that intermixes the language of traditional songs (“I trusted liars and thieves in my blindness”) and Motown (“But now it’s just like ABC/Life’s just like 1…2…3”), in the finger-snappin’ context of a reverb-drenched arrangement straight out of Dave Edmunds. Then comes the sprightly, string-enhanced shuffle “Jailbird,” which follows the final minutes of a condemned man – one human who knows precisely when the life will go out of his body, which is what interests Ward in the subject. The words he puts in the mouth of his dead man walking directly address the album’s prevailing theme: “Save my soul ’fore they lay my old body down.”

It’s easy to get lost in Ward’s lyrics, but this artist’s thematic concerns can’t be separated from his sonic impulses, which deftly draw on the handmade sounds of Appalachian music, country blues, clapboard-church gospel and early rock’n’roll connect with his own roots. At the same time, the album has all the lo-fi signifiers, from Ward’s imperfectly doubled lead vocals – his wobbly baritone tends to sound like he has a chronic case of cottonmouth – to the gauze of reverb he throws over the tracks like an aural tarp. But these intimate elements co-exist with the most expansive arrangements of Ward’s career.

The album’s leitmotif is its lush, dreamy string sections, which bring a gorgeous poignancy not only to the metaphysical songs “For Beginners”, “Hold Time”, “Save Me”, “Fisher Of Men” and Epistemology”, but also to his radical reworkings of a pair of ’50s rockers, Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” (a duet with Deschanel) and Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” (with Lucinda Williams), each slowed to the purr of an idling engine. A third cover closes the album; it’s the Sinatra ballad “I’m a Fool to Want You”, with Ward soloing existentially on tremolo electric guitar over vibes and clouds of synthesized strings, transforming it into the end-title theme for an imaginary spaghetti western that doubles as a wordless hymn.

“I have a lot of questions about that relationship between love and death,” Ward said in 2003. He’s pondering those questions in earnest now. This is a deep, delectable, utterly timeless work.

Can you describe the overarching theme of the album, and of "Hold Time" in particular?
its inspired by being asked where my inspiration comes from. its the hardest question in the world to answer, so i decided to make a record that tried to answer the question.

While listening to the new album, "Chinese Translation" keeps circulating in my consciousness. Is it fair to say the album is an extension of, or further inquiry into, the metaphysical realm?
i guess i m more interested in stories/songs that raise questions instead of pretending to have all the answers. theres not many elements of daily life that can take people to those areas - but i think music can.

With songs like "Epistemology" and "Blake's View," the album practically shouts Big Ideas. What are you trying to get at, and how do you avoid pretentiousness? Can a pop song actually contain this level of ambition?
lyrically, i wanted this record to begin to cover the "inspiration question" for me, so i think i was aiming higher than normal. production-wise, i wanted the big sounds i was playing with from "post-war" to be bigger and the smaller sounds to be even thinner. i wanted to find a balance between rich string sounds and thin, pawn-shop sounds.

Why did you decide to do the Buddy Holly and Don Gibson covers?
the short answer is that ive loved those songs as long as ive loved any song - theyre both love songs but also polar opposites - the long answer is that id like to erase any kind of timeframe on these records im making - i believe in healthy confusion when youre listening to a record - some kind of a chronological disorientation. i like it when i hear a song on the radio and i dont know how old it is, or where certain sounds are coming from. it was a thrill to duet with lucinda on "oh lonesome me" and zooey on "rave on" - their voices are completely opposite sounds to work with.

There's a gospel feel to the music and, in a refracted way, the lyrics on the album, especially as it culminates. What was behind the impulse to go in that direction?
this question reminds me of what its like for me to answer the "inspiration question" - i think the "impulse question" is just as good but just as confounding because i really dont know where it comes from - somewhere in my mind improvisation is equal to inspiration and instincts and impulses...

Your arrangements are more lush than ever before, and yet you've retained the lo-fi character that has always defined your records. Has lo-fi become an aesthetic principle for you, and if so, how would you define it?
growing up with making so many 4-track tapes, that sound is forever in my head and tied to my memory in some way so it has personal value - ive always viewed my larger studio work as an expansion on those sounds as opposed to a replacement.