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The Decembrists

SXSW Music Conference, Friday, March 19

They twanged. They polka-ed. They lounged. They crunched and jangled. They swapped around instruments like master jugglers. They were earnest. They were silly. They played their guitars in back of their heads. They played upright bass, keyboards, pedal steel, accordion, harmonium, mandolin--everything but a kazoo.

Oh, wait. Maybe there was a kazoo.

Is there a musical notion too far-fetched for Portland's Decemberists? This unwieldy pop orchestra mesmerized several hundred hipsters who, up until that point, had been mostly interested in free beer and, well, their outfits. It was, after all, a private showcase sponsored by a clothing manufacturer, and the crowd was a sea of fashion statements. (This scrivener wore vintage Stockman--read: old cowboy shirt.) The Decemberists held us all with their music alone; Colin Meloy's intricate lyric themes were impossible to follow live and loud.

Lines like " ... let your legs loll on the lino / 'til your sinews spoil," from the jaunty "Billy Liar" are not easily conveyed in a party setting, and the words dissipated into the SXSW afternoon.

On record, Meloy's perfect diction and a voice-conscious mix reveal his lyrics as literature, with stories and characters so well-crafted you can close your eyes and watch the movie. Many of the songs are tongue-in-cheek, as in the SXSW-crowd favorite "Los Angeles, I'm Yours," an encyclopedia of everything that's wrong with the place, with faux-lounge soul splashed ostentatiously throughout the arrangement. Others are high-concept vignettes of historical fiction with post-grad vocabularies, like "The Legionnaire's Lament," about a French soldier who fears wasting in the African Desert. Amusingly (there is always something amusing in a Decembrists song), the accompanying music is almost country folk, possibly intending to invoke a desert feel.

"Longing for the old fecundity of my homeland," the soldier says, "Curses to this mirage!"

SXSW, perhaps?

More by Linda Ray

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