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A unique way to say 'I love you'

The Decemberists' fantastic tale on 'The Hazards of Love' uses

March 20, 2009|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

AUSTIN, TEXAS — A barbecue joint in the heart of Austin's party district may not seem like the best place for a composer and his ensemble to debut a serious new work. But Oregon's the Decemberists, the collaborative that realizes Colin Meloy's conceptions, are a rock band too.

So just after midnight Thursday, the group took the stage at Stubb's and presented "The Hazards of Love," its new "folk opera," for the first time in concert. The show celebrated the release of the "Hazards" album (out now on iTunes, due Tuesday on CD and vinyl).

Meloy is a revivalist's revivalist. He borrows from 1960s folk rock and such later song crafters as Robyn Hitchcock and Kate Bush, who used antiquated sources partly to overcome the limitations of "baby, I love you" in pop.

"The Hazards of Love" is ultimately a tale of "baby, I love you" -- though a fantastic one, featuring shape-shifters, a forest queen and a lass who gets tossed into the thistle. The hourlong song suite -- voiced by Meloy in the roles of the faun-turned-human lover William and the villainous Rake, and guest singers Becky Stark as Margaret, the ingenue, and Shara Worden as the evil Queen -- is a reconstructed fairy tale, in which lost virtue leads to tragedy, then supernatural redemption.

Musically, "The Hazards of Love" is difficult to grasp in one listen; it was obviously challenging live. Its songs blend into each other, with gentle acoustic numbers giving way to heavy, early-1970s-style rock. One arrangement recalled the Kinks; another featured five of the seven musicians onstage banging drums -- very avant-garde. But Meloy's influences were absorbed in what has become the Decemberists' sound: a catchy, polished, very contemporary version of "vintage." (The group will be at the Hollywood Palladium on May 19.)

The biggest risk the new music revealed was a step away from easy hooks. This new work stresses mood-building instrumental passages and expository lyrics over addictive choruses. Memorable songs were entangled within the narrative, but rarely jumped out.

Sharing vocals was another experiment. Meloy chose well with Stark and Worden. Both are bandleaders in their own right -- Stark founded the L.A.-based Lavender Diamond, while Worden helms the similarly named My Brightest Diamond -- but at Stubb's each stayed strictly in character. Stark used her soprano to project naivete as Margaret, while Worden kicked out all the stops, echoing Tina Turner's turn as the Acid Queen in the film version of "Tommy."

The complex material exposed the limitations of Meloy's voice, a nasal twang that not everyone loves. Meloy has said that he doesn't want to over-theatricalize his song cycle's presentation, but the plot might have been more clear with one more male vocalist.

As for that plot, it renders "The Hazards of Love" as much a pre-Raphaelite work as a prog-rock one. Margaret encounters William, shape-shifted as a faun; they have sex and she becomes pregnant. Their love is threatened by the amoral Rake and the jealous Queen; they find peace in a watery death. (Meloy has long held an interest in watery death.)

Such stories have an archetypal potency, but it's frustrating that Meloy opted for these images. Must the princess always end up in the muck?

In a way, though, the plot of "The Hazards of Love" is just instrumental. Meloy wanted to spin a tale -- the saga of his pop elders' fascination with a past that was as mystical for them as it is for him. His new work accomplishes that goal.

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ann.powers@latimes.com

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