DUKES (AND DUCHESSES) OF HAZARDS Decemberists

As his band storms
SXSW this week, it’s back to ravaging female protagonists for Colin Meloy.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

 

After four smart albums and several fan club EPs, it’s nice
to know that the Decemberists can still cause a revolt with their fifth, The Hazards of Love, out March 24 on
Capitol. And that tumult has nothing to do with the Russians of 1825 and their
little uprising.

 

You don’t necessarily always expect a lyricist/singer such
as Colin Meloy and melody making musicians Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate
Query, and John Moen to continuously churn out lushly arranged, complexly
compose songs from career’s start through to it continuation.

 

Killing wily whores and distressed damsels with all manner
of fabulously arcane accoutrement, hanging with barrow boys, romancing
throughout a Civil War and telling archly detailed tales without the lame-oid
ruminative aspects that most alt-pop-blobs employ is hard work. You might think
Meloy would want to give the picaresque story telling a break. On occasion, he
has: he’s released a private stock of other folks’ songs – Morrissey’s, Shirley
Collins’, Sam Cooke’s – on three limited-edition EPs, while on Colin Meloy Sings Live! he nodded at
both Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd.

 

Does he hold the Decemberists songs to match the stature of those
he’s covered? Meloy’s humble and fumbling on this count. “I wouldn’t begin to
suppose that my songs in any way match the stature of Sam and Moz,” he says. “The
reason I cover them is because I am in awe of what they do.  I’m like a Pinto owner given an opportunity
to look under the hood of a, I don’t know, 1964 GTO.”

 

Though last fall the Decemberists quickly recorded and
released the three-volume Always the Bridesmaid 12-inch singles series of handily catchy tracks (“Valerie Plame,” from the
first volume, became a surprise AAA radio hit), when it came to composing The Hazards of Love, melodically and
conceptually all they needed was tenacity. The whole Hazard thing started as an exercise in writing a series of songs
that were all written in order, blending into one another. 

 

“As soon as I had finished one, I would use the last chord
of that song as the jumping-off point of the next song,” Meloy claims. “As it
stood, everything was in drop-D, and it started to get a little, y’know, un-dynamic.  But that is still the reigning tone and key
of the record: drop D.  Chris Walla
visited us in the studio and was wandering around, idly strumming on the
guitars that were lying around, and it turned out that every guitar was tuned
in drop D.”

 

There’s the obvious wonderment (OK, obvious to me) as to why a 17-song suite and what
forced its hand to keep going or stop when it stopped. But then again I’ve
always questioned whether or not Ten Years was One Year After too many. And
that really, Nine Inches of Nail really didn’t say quite enough.

 

“I would make some cryptic remark about the numerological
significance of 17, but I’ll spare you,” says Meloy, sparingly. “It just stopped
when it stopped.  I had the last song of
the cycle earlier on, so it really was just a question of filling in the story
between the two bookends.”

 

When it came to the legerdemain and the inspiration for
where Hazards would go, you can look
no further than one of Meloy’s most naggingly insistent obsessions: shape
shifting animals that maul women, like “Margaret” and the “animal” what snagged
her.

 

“Yeah, that’s definitely a common theme for me; the Crane Wife songs were similar in that
[regard]. I think it’s an interesting and common motif in folk song and tale.
It just happened to be the spark for this narrative. It’s also a motif borrowed
from “Tam Lin” or “Tambling” or “Young Tamblin,” depending on what version
you’re hearing.  Tam Lin doesn’t shape
shift, but he does just kind of emerge from a tree.”

And then?

 

“And, of course, ravages the female protagonist,” says Meloy
with a snicker before intoning his song’s words.  “And he’s never once asked her leave,”
says the song.

 

Before quizzing Meloy about specific songs I wanted to know
how he and fellow Decemberists came to include the voices of My Morning
Jacket’s Jim James, Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark, My Brightest Diamond’s
Shara Worden and Robyn Hitchcock into “The Rake’s Song.” If there was effect he
was looking for, did he find it? Were they characters to be etched into the Hazard‘s script or were they just having
lunch around the corner? A little of both it seems.

 

“Robyn and Jim were corralled just because they’re our
friends and they were around and seemed game to do something.  Becky and Shara, on the other hand, are two
people for whom I have utmost admiration. 
When this thing was being deliberated, it was their voices I was hearing
singing on these songs.”

 

Fair enough.  For
those seeking a Led Zep reunion that will never and should never happen (easy
for me to say – I saw them) [Braggart. –
Ed.
], the Decemberists do something that only Page-n-Plant – and maybe Jethro
Tull on a very great day – do in that they make the whole leap from crunchy metal
(“The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing”) to a lute/accordion’s lilt (“Isn’t it a
Lovely Night”) while keeping all the stitching of it seamless.

 

“My metal phase has come very late,” says Meloy, of Zep’s
influence. “When all the other marginalized kids were sewing DRI patches on to
their denim jackets, I was quietly ensconced in a Smiths-R.E.M.-Hüsker Dü
reverie. But, as I read in a review recently, it’s still the kind of music that
gets you stuffed into a locker.”

This look into Meloy’s past allows me entrée into a few things that had been bugging
me since the band’s start:

 

 

 

BLURT: Is there
anything you miss about being on Kill Rock Stars?

Colin Meloy: I miss Slim Moon.

 

BLURT: Other than a
new car and a spiffy hat what did signing with Capitol and selling bunches of The Crane Wife afford you?

CM: Ha. Have you been stalking me?  The
Crane Wife
has afforded me modest things. I live in a house in the
woods.  It has afforded my quietude.

 

BLURT: You did loads
of Democratic Party stuff including the whole Always the Bridesmaid thing and that mini-tour for Obama throughout
2008. What’ll you do if he screws up, honestly?

CM: I was indoctrinated a Democrat in the womb.  As long as he sticks to the core principles,
I won’t be disappointed.  Nobody’s
perfect.

 

 

 

Back to the Hazards of the present, Meloy’s pen rendered pride and ardor into his tale of lenore
(my word blending “new,” “lore” and “yore”).

 

Named after an actual traditional song, Meloy’s “Annan
Water” is one of many “river-as-obstacle” narratives in folk music. To
Meloy’s reckoning, things were trickier in the days when bridges weren’t so
common. Then there’s “The Queens’s Approach” which, according to Meloy, is “the
‘Repaid’ riff played on banjo, backed by manipulated strings. For a while it
was going to be guitar, but we nixed it. 
If it had survived, it would’ve been the only instance of me using my
new ’77 Ibanez Rocket Senior Flying Vee. Yeah, like the one Bob Mould played.”

 

When I tease him about going on tour with Hazard and its promise of playing the
album from front-to-back and the possible costuming of such, I stumble on
something I heard within this new CD that I’ve not felt or dealt with
throughout the Decemberists catalog – some jokes, a ripping tip of a yarn here,
some black humored bits there.

 

What gives, Colin Meloy?

 

“Yes, I think it has a kind of over-arching humor to it that
might be lacking in the other records,” he admits. “There’s some funny shit on
there, I think, but people may not pick up on that.  What can you do?”

 

 

[The Decemberists will
be at SXSW in Austin
this week, performing
The Hazards of Love in its entirety and in sequence: Wednesday, March 18, at midnight, at
Stubb’s as part of the NPR showcase.
]

 

 

 

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