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Pop's antique dealer

Sea yarns, Japanese folk tales and Civil War stories -- Colin Meloy weaves them all into jangly post-new wave.

October 08, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

COLIN MELOY has probably never plucked a lyre, but the gesture would be appropriate. As leader of the Decemberists, Portland, Oregon's master purveyors of eccentric pop, Meloy pens lyrics that can seem as ancient as Homer: tales of seafarers and soldiers that songs have transported for thousands of years.

"The Crane Wife," the band's new album, and its first on Capitol Records after several successful indie releases, continues his story collecting. In the title track, a three-part epic based on a Japanese folk tale, a bird transforms into a bride, only to flee when her husband discovers that she still has her feathers. "Yankee Bayonet," a lovely duet with fellow Northwesterner Laura Veirs, is a Civil War ghost story. "O Valencia!" recasts "Romeo and Juliet" in Spain. And there's a rambling, 11-minute suite of watery horror stories, climaxing with the chilling pronouncement, "Go to sleep ... you'll not feel the drowning."

"I got that from 'In Patagonia' by Bruce Chatwin," Meloy said over tea and toast at the Grafton hotel last week. "There's a great section about a 19th century sailor who had journaled all this stuff when he was a kid. At one point his boat is stuck in a squall and it looks like it's going to capsize, and he's down in his bunk with some of the older boys, and one says that to him. And it really struck me -- wow, so harrowing."

One expects to hear lyrics taken from such sources to be accompanied by a lone dulcimer, not the sprightly post-new wave jangle that made the Decemberists' three albums on the independent label Kill Rock Stars college-rock hits. The group does include an accordionist -- Jenny Conlee -- and dabbles in glockenspiels and trumpets. But its sound is pop, as is Meloy's attitude.

"I think it's in my bone structure, the idea of creating pop songs," said Meloy, who grew up in Helena, Mont., reading the Romantic poets and idolizing Morrissey. "It's like writing poetry. There is a structure. That quality played into my love of bands like XTC and Robyn Hitchcock and Squeeze. I really appreciate the craft. And there's a self-reflexive quality to pop -- it's always meta, always consuming itself."

On "The Crane Wife," the group moves beyond jangle pop toward a blend of highflying progressive rock and electrified folk, inspired by epic counterculture-era albums such as Fairport Convention's "Liege & Lief." New takes on "prog" and folk abound in rock now, but Meloy's popwise ways make the Decemberists' take on this notoriously hippie-ish era unusually accessible.

With that clarity comes a risk. "I feel like I'm constantly almost falling into the sea of novelty, and I don't know what tether, if any, is keeping me out of it," Meloy said with a laugh.

Two things save the Decemberists, who play the Wiltern LG on Oct. 21, from being a joke band -- Meloy's highly singable melodies, fleshed out by bandmates whose skills run from bluegrass to chamber music, and his whimsical take on material he digs up from outside sources or his own head. The 32-year-old learned song craft from listening to the artists he loved in high school. And the playful tone of his lyrics is right in sync with his peers.

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Like minds

IN recent years, an array of artists who, like Meloy, engage with the past in a new way has emerged. This group can't be called a movement, though its members are mostly in their 30s or 40s and have fairly recently earned fame. What they share is a fascination with worlds beyond the reach of contemporary life and a desire to discover how those worlds might connect to the rush of the contemporary.

Some, including the writers Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), Jonathan Lethem and Wesley Stace, blend the historical and the wondrous by connecting to such old-fashioned genres as children's horror, the noirish detective story and the Victorian novel. Others, among them graphic novelist Chris Ware and silent-film revivalist Guy Maddin, work in vintage styles, but with a melancholy sense of distance. Songwriter Stephin Merritt revived the pop standard for indie rockers; humorist John Hodgman revamped the almanac. Like these artists, the Decemberists explore the antique to gain a new perspective on emotion itself.

"American history is so crammed with drama -- with greed and murder and blood and bum luck -- it's just a treasure trove of subject matter compared to the highly pleasant but mundane realities of my own life," said essayist Sarah Vowell, one of the few women working in this vein, in an interview. "Colin has one song [from the 2005 Decemberists album, 'Picaresque'] about a lover lost at sea. I doubt anything that romantic and wistful has happened to him personally. It certainly hasn't to me. Jet Blue lost my luggage last month, but as song material that lacks a certain gravitas."

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