By Dennis Cook
My heart of silk is filled with lights,
with lost bells, with lilies and bees.
I will go very far,
farther than those hills, farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to beg Christ the Lord
to give me back the soul I had
when I was a child,
ripened with legends,
with a feathered cap and a wooden sword.
-Federico García Lorca
It's an odd name. Long before I heard a note, the word Decemberists conjured up images of a Sinterklaas-obsessed political organization or a terrorist cell bent on returning the last month of the year to its pagan roots. "I'm always just glad when people can pronounce it," chuckles Chris Funk, multi-instrumental instigator for this hyper-literate secret society on the verge of much wider recognition. "The name partially comes from a Russian revolutionary group called the Decembrists. We spelled it differently because we didn't want to piss off anyone with an affiliation with that group. The name also implies a maudlin time of year, and that's why we spelled it more like the month of December. Our first record was more like that feeling - Red House Painters-like if you will, mellower and quieter. Now it just means my band. I'll let you know in 10 years what it really means [laughs]."
After a string of critically lauded indie curios starting in 2001, the Portland-based group finds their effervescent new single "O Valencia!" bumping shoulders with Tom Petty and Lindsey Buckingham on AOR-radio. A tale of star-crossed lovers with fresh blood on the ground, "O Valencia!" slips the knife in so gently you don't realize it. While often compared to Belle & Sebastian, the Decemberists are really the descendents of Fairport Convention and Tyrannosaurus Rex - a bright, appealing swirl of pop, folk and well-tempered boisterousness. With their major label debut, The Crane Wife, the band is slowly creeping into the mainstream. That they've done so on their own terms is perhaps their greatest triumph.
The Decemberists have a pronounced interest in what's come before, including archaic language, historical tales, and vintage costumes. A lot is made of this backward leaning, but it's only part of the picture. Like The Byrds or The Band – both fascinated by folklore and older musical forms - their affinity for the past just adds layers to these thoroughly contemporary artists.
"When people actually listen to the band and peel away the folds, they'll discover there's a lot more being offered," observes Funk. "We love the whole Fairport (Convention) lineage and British folk music. Often times in journalism, writers say what the band is and people keep repeating that. For instance, we have a song called 'The Chimbley Sweep,' which is set in the Victorian era, so people say we're a Victorian band. We hear it over and over. Maybe kind of one song, but that song is really a country song, a barn-burner hoe-down."
One primary reason for the sepia-tinted descriptions is the grad school smart words singer-songwriter Colin Meloy employs. Able to work in "Babylon" without sounding overly Caucasian or to put skipping feet to a line like "The curlews carve their Arabesques," Meloy is simply smarter and more actively engaged with wordplay than most of his peers.
"He doesn't use them in a showy way. It's never for the sake of having a large word to fumble over. I think it's really musical," says Funk. "I think that's why he started experimenting with other words to find ways to deliver an image that's more musical than 'Baby, I love you.' He realized there's more out there, which goes for the rest of the band too. As a multi-instrumentalist I'm always thinking about how we can have other sounds, how we can explore and experiment a little while keeping our feet in the past and respecting traditions of music we appreciate."
Colin Meloy :: 10.19.06 by Dave Vann
It doesn't help that Meloy sings these brainy ditties in a voice much older than the man himself. One hears the aged scotch smoothness of Gordon Lightfoot and British legend Lal Waterson, though Funk says Meloy's sweetly rough depths "probably come from a healthy dose of Robyn Hitchcock and The Replacements."