Archive for the 'colin meloy' Category

CD Review – The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love (Rough Trade, 2009)

It’s fair to say that here at The Indie Credential, we like The Decemberists a littleok, a lot.

The Hazards Of Love

One of the things which appeals so very much is their penchant for storytelling, something that on The Crane Wife (and The Tain) they began to spread across song cycles – rather than just songs. So, when they announced that the new album, Hazards of Love, was going to be a concept album, it really didn’t come as much of a surprise. They’ve been building towards this for years. Lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy is, for all intents and purposes, a writer who happens to put his stories into song, rather than a musician who happens to write lyrics. I think he’d probably be rather pleased if I described him as a modern-day minstrel – creating and reworking folk tales, allegories and morality tales.

Hazards of Love is quite an achievement. It manages to be a completely over-the-top ’70’s-prog-style concept album, a morality tale and a proper melodrama all rolled into roughly 60 minutes of song.  By virtue of being a musical the production has to have coherent songs and songs need things like choruses and repetition so precious time is taken being, well, songlike and the plot and the characters suffer; but because it’s a story it has to have a plot so the songs lose out on being really coherent, stand-alone songs because they have to drive the plot forward and tie together in the way that the songs on a pop record simply don’t. I hate musicals. I don’t hate this, but the result leaves me feeling slighly unfulfilled and wishing for a proper record, with, well, pop songs.

Despite this failure, which is not the fault of The Decemberists’ songwriting but a shortcoming of the format they’ve chosen, The Hazards of Love is a very enjoyable listen. There’s some great hooks and catchy bits and while I have very little time for guest singer Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and her rather shrill singing voice, the gothic, menacing vocals of My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden are among the highlights.

What has me turning round in circles, and somewhat let down, then, is the plot itself – which really doesn’t go very far or say very much. Just to explain (and this is a spoiler so if you really don’t want to know the story, stop reading here):

William, our hero, was rescued as a baby by the menacing forest Queen who turns him into a fawn by day and a human at night. He gets himself caught in the underbrush where Margaret, the “heroine” stumbles across him. She goes to help him and while she’s untangling his hind legs he turns into a human. They fall in love and consumate the relationship. Margaret gets pregnant out of wedlock – and since her true love is part animal nobody knows who he is but she’s unrepentant. They want to be together so William begs The Queen to allow him his relationship by evening if he promises to return to the forest by day. They’re happy for a while. Then The Rake, a man whose wife died giving birth to his fourth child and who murdered his other three kids cause he didn’t like being a widower, kidnaps Margaret and takes her away to have his way with her.  The Queen is thrilled and helps The Rake get to safety with his captive by enabling him to cross the deep and rapid river – thinking William will be left to her in the forest. Instead, William makes a pact with the river to let him across to rescue her – saying the river can have him on the way back once she’s safe. As he makes his way to Margaret, the ghosts of The Rake’s murdered children swoop in for revenge, Margaret is freed and united with William and the two of them plunge into the river where they’re swept away to their death – together, still declaring their love for each other.

It’s over the top, it’s outrageous and it’s entertaining. The tunes and the use of instruments provide an ambiance to the tale – The Queen and The Rake get crazy heavy metal guitars while William’s parts are soaring folk melodies of standard Decemberists fare. The standout theme becomes “The Wanting Comes in Waves,” a refrain which repeats itself throughout – foreshadowing the ending when William and Margaret are swept away by the waves to their watery ending.

However, digging further into the story the holes appear. For starters, it seems Colin Meloy has plundered his own back catalogue for ideas. The fawn becoming human is reminiscent of the Crane Wife, herself. The kidnap (and the surrounding crazy guitars) are reminiscent of “The Island.” The Rake could be that same villain at a later date. The ending is akin to “We Both Go Down Together.”

Next, what exactly are “The Hazards of Love”? If this tale is correct the hazards are 1) rescuing random fawns can lead to falling in love with supernatural creatures; 2) falling in love with supernatural creatures might land you with a rather unpleasant mother-in-law; 3) pregnancy out of wedlock can cause fate to deal you an ugly hand – kidnap and drowning; 4) falling in love with a woman that your crazy mother doesn’t like can cause her to side with your wife’s kidnapper and let you drown. I’m not sure where these “hazards” arise – nobody gets a broken heart, nobody gets broken or damaged as a direct result of their emotions – only as a result of their massive character flaws and the cack-handed way they handle the situation at hand.

William is weak-willed, following Margaret blindly, rushing to his death – and he’s not the one who rescues her. And then there’s the women… Now in a morality tale (in particular in a Victorian morality tale), the heroine is actually a heroine. She makes a mistake, learns from it, redeems herself and has a happy ending – see the blind woman who gets her sight back at the end of Mary Barton. Or, perhaps, her mistake is so fatal that even if she learns from it, she dies anyway. In this instance, however, nobody learns anything so the story doesn’t actually achieve anything. In fact, the characters in this tale remind me a bit of Heathcliff and Kathy in Wuthering Heights – another haunting tale – but one in which the lovers got what they deserved because of their own inability to handle their emotions and act like decent human beings.

The second problem is the way the women are characterised – they are victims who do nothing but pop out babies and die (The Rake’s wife), they are flighty, selfish and demanding – and pop out babies (Margaret), or they are venomous and vengeful (The Queen).

Margaret, for her part, rescues the fawn, and for this she is a heroine – but this simple act of kindness is one any feeling person would offer. Rather, once she’s fallen in love and fallen pregnant she refuses to name the father and instead, retreats to the forest unrepentant and without a care, selfishly singing “And I may swoon from all this swelling / But I won’t want for love.” When she is kidnapped and in mortal danger, even knowing her true love’s promise to The Queen, she begs for rescue by him – without fear for danger to him.

The Queen for her part is wonderfully evil and menacing – but her maternal feelings are also of jealousy, anger and vengeance. If she cannot have the son she rescued as a baby all to herself, she would rather see him dead. She helps The Rake across the river, thanking him for “removing this temptation” – and sadly she’s right – Margaret is bad news. She’s misjudged her son’s feelings for the temptress, but does not come to his rescue as he drowns.

And this is where my brain really started churning… The format of the tale means the characters were always going to be half-formed and Colin Meloy would be stretched to deal properly with complex plot strands in the space of an album. But looking backwards across The Decemberists back catalogue it seems he’s struggled to write female characters from day one.

With the possible exception of Valencia, his Romeo and Juliet-style heroine in “O Valencia” off The Crane Wife, his adult female characters all fall into the categories above – helpless (Leslie Anne Levine’s young mother, the female lover in “We Both Go Down Together”), evil temptress (“The Bagman’s Gambit”), flighty and weak in the face of love (the narrator’s mother in “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”) – or even the object of comedy and derision (“A Cautionary Song” – he may be tender, but he’s still mocking the fact that the recipient of the tale has a mother who’s a whore). The only real saving grace in his portrayal of women is in the recent Always the Bridesmaid songs – but even here, “Valerie Plame” is remembered by a former lover (and is possibly the same villainess from “The Bagman’s Gambit”) and the other women, while sympathetic, are a little pathetic. “Raincoat Song” describes a Bridget Jones-style character. “Days of Elaine” is about a middle-aged woman stuck in her glory days of youth.

Ultimately, if you don’t mind a bit of prog rock melodrama, then The Hazards of Love is an intriguing, complex and entertaining listen but it is not without its faults – partially as a result of the limitations of trying to combine a story and a pop record into the same project, but partially because Meloy’s storytelling still needs development and because he needs to learn to flesh out his female characters into the three dimensional and sympathetic portraits he paints of his male characters.

The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistle Undone)

The Decemberists – Margaret In Captivity

The Decemberists – A Cautionary Song

Posted by JustHipper on 27th March 2009 at 12:03 am | comments (6)
File under CD Reviews,colin meloy,decemberists,mp3.

CD Review: Colin Meloy, Colin Meloy Sings Live! (Rough Trade, 2008)

Colin Meloy sings Live!Ahh, Colin Meloy. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I harbour a particular fondness for The Decemberists. I’ve seen them live on a number of occasions and enjoy the theatricality of their performances and the sheer amount of activity on stage and the mad swapping of instruments. As Colin Meloy has never brought his solo show (and hence, the chance to buy his solo tour-only EP’s – grr!) to the UK, scratchy bootlegs aside, we’d never had the opportunity to assess what one of his solo performances would be like.

Funnily enough, on his first solo album, Colin Meloy Sings Live!, we do, indeed, get the opportunity to hear him singing, in, shockingly enough, a live setting. The album is Colin, his guitar and an audience. It’s nice. He’s warm, he’s personable, he’s often very funny, and he gets the chance to showcase some of the quieter Decemberists songs that the band do not often play; songs which, to be honest, if they did play at a gig, I would wonder why they were playing them. Songs like, “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” and “The Bachelor and the Bride” which would slow down the momentum of a Decemberists gig, as those are usually quite upbeat and festive, but which in this setting really brought out the stories in the lyrics. The tone is, as it must be when it’s just one guy and an acoustic guitar, distinctly more toned-down. Colin himself tells the audience that he wants a “campfire” vibe and he encourages a singalong, although you can only hear the crowd on the few occasions when he stops singing and lets them take over.

The live show, along with enabling him to showcase some of the quieter Decemberists moments, also gives him the opportunity to play a couple of non-Decemberists tracks including an old Tarkio song, “Devil’s Elbow” which sounds like something Mark Kozelek might have written in his Red House Painters days, and some covers, most notably “Barbara Allen” by Shirley Collins, from his tour-only EP Colin Meloy Sings Shirley Collins. Strangely, on this track, he tells the crowd that on CD it has electric guitars and they should headbang in order to capture the harder feel he wants to evoke. Now, in my mind, if he can’t capture the song the way he wants to tell it, then really he should choose a different song. But it sounds nice enough, not having heard the Shirley Collins EP. He also plays what he says is the worst song he ever wrote. It is, in fact pretty bad – easily as bad as he says it is. Bad enough to have me thankful for “The Bagman’s Gambit.”

On the whole, it sounds like a great gig. “Red Right Ankle,” “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground,” and “A Cautionary Tale” come across very well and I found myself struggling not to burst out singing along to “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect,” “Red Right Ankle” and “The Engine Driver” as we were listening to the album driving across the Pennines from Leeds. I think my singing would probably have caused The Ledge to drive over the side of the M62, so I held back. As great as the softer songs sounded, “We Both Go Down Together” very much misses the full band, and the strange and sometwhat abrupt segue into the chorus of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac at the end of “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” makes very little sense in the context of anything. The segue into a haunting, soft version of “Ask” by The Smiths at the end of “California One Youth and Beauty Brigade” works far better.

Ultimately, as great a performer as Colin Meloy is, both on his own and with The Decemberists, this live CD falls into the same trap as 99% of all live CDs in that listening to a live performance in the car, or sitting at home in your lounge or while cooking dinner, cannot possibly capture the atmosphere of the live performance and as a result always ends up either sounding sterile, or in this case, leaving me feeling like I’ve missed out on something. It’s essentially the same feeling as having a friend describe the amazing night out they had that you missed because you were home sick with the flu. This sensation was doubly emphasized by Colin explaining his stage set and the meaning behind it. While it gives the listener some greater idea of the setting, it also leaves the impression that something gets lost in the telling. I won’t spoil the comedy of the description by recounting it.

So, if you’re a Decemberists fan, this CD is certainly worth the purchase price, especially if you’ve never had the chance to catch them live. The acoustic renditions of the songs more than do them justice and are worth hearing. Ultimately, although I have no doubt that this CD is going to get worn out over the next few months from repeated listens, it just makes me a bit mournful about the tour that was cancelled last October and eager for either Colin on his own, or the whole band, to record a new album and get their backsides over to the UK.

Colin Meloy – The Gymnast, High Above the Ground (Live)

Tarkio – Devil’s Elbow

Posted by JustHipper on 23rd March 2008 at 2:28 pm | comments (0)
File under CD Reviews,colin meloy,decemberists,mp3,Reviews,shirley collins,tarkio.