On Behalf of Orangina

The Decemberists perform their dramatic, literary alt-rock, with orange soda in tow

Is it odd for a fellow, in this day and age, to wake up for three mornings in a row with images of a dark and twisted sea shanty running through his noggin? No more than it is for an indie-rock singer-songwriter to write about one and lead off his latest album with it.

Indeed, "Shanty for the Arethusa" is the opening track on the Her Majesty the Decemberists, the late-2003 CD by the Decemberists, the Portland, Ore.-based music troupe fronted by singer-songwriter and creative-writing grad Colin Meloy.

Meloy's balladry brings to mind vaudeville, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, "Sweeney Todd," the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Kurt Weill and Nick Cave, 1960s psychedelic rock pop and roaring pub sing-alongs.

So rich with character, setting, drama and detail are Meloy's songs that one imagines them as novellas unfolding in the listener's head.

"Well, that's sort of inadvertently my approach," he says. "I just like to write songs with solid characters and with complex narratives. So I treat it more like a short story or a chapter in novel."

Although Meloy is exceedingly polite throughout his interview, sometimes he seems to be pulling your leg--in a gentle sort of manner.

When Meloy says the best thing about doing a concert is the "scads of free Orangina," it seems tongue-in-cheek. But a glance at the band's Web site reveals that, indeed, the French beverage is the official drink of the Decemberists, who even provide a link to the Orangina Internet destination.

Meloy expresses some satisfaction that his singularly eclectic tunes have become popular among the alternative crowd.

"I've actually sort of been surprised that we have been embraced by that scene as much as we have. I mean, considering the communist cells and things like that."

Communists? Yes, the Decemberists--which include drummer Rachel Blumberg, Chris Funk on guitars, Jenny Conlee on accordion and keyboards and bassist Nate Query-- borrowed their band's name from a communist revolutionary group in 1820s Russia, Meloy says. But the name also "... is an allusion to the month of December and imagining the drama and melancholy of winter."

One might think, then, that Colin Meloy engages in extensive historical research to create his material. One might, but one would be wrong.

"I couldn't really say that. What knowledge I have of history is really limited to what I studied in high school and college and limited to the books that I have read.

"I think the songs themselves are kind of like a 'penny spectacular' approach to history. I definitely pick out the more exotic bits and tend to be drawn to the more sensationalistic elements."

Meloy started playing guitar at 12 or 13, after trying his hand at clarinet and piano. One might think that experience with other instruments influenced the creative arrangements and instrumentation of The Decemberists. One might, but again one would be wrong.

"I don't know it's due to the fact that I played clarinet and piano as much as it's due to the fact that I have a bunch of bandmates who are very talented and who play several different instruments and are always willing to try something new," he says.

The Decemberists have been together since 2001, having released two full-length albums and two EPs, the most recent of which is the critically acclaimed The Tain, a one-song, five-part, 18-minute suite.

Essential listening, however, is Her Majesty the Decemberists, which features gorgeous character studies and tales of woeful humor such as "The Gymnast, High Above the Ground," "Song for Myla Goldberg," "I Was Meant for the Stage," "The Bachelor and the Bride" and "The Chimbley Sweep."

And, you know, the Decemberists are catching on. In a recent review in The New York Times, critic Kelefa Sanneh wrote, "Mr. Meloy has lovingly created his own alternate universe, and he draws his hapless characters with enormous wit and tenderness, even the chimbley sweeps."