Decemberists: Prog Meets the Sea Shanty

4 05 2011

The Decemberists are a twisting and rewarding trip through musical genres leading ultimately to the doorstep of prog. This prog-unlikely band is from Portland, Oregon, not lushest England but lush nonetheless. The themes never stray far from life, death and the joys & perils of extremely large bodies of water. The vessel is often traditional acoustic English folk  with a twangy country American hull of reverb and a crisp backbeat that doesn’t falter at the odd time signature. Song lengths vary — they’re as long as necessary, sometimes clocking in at a 78 rpm standard of  three minutes but 10-minute territory isn’t unusual.

It’s tempting to categorize music or tear it apart to find out what makes it tick. The Decemberists hold up pretty well to this kind of scrutiny. Invite it, even. The more the better. This is music that revels in being examined.

The band’s latest is The King is Dead, the fourth in a strong string of discs. Close your eyes, choose and you can’t find a loser in the bunch. Each are a joyful experience. This newest is a poppy set, with running times condensed and cinematic story songs Chaucer or Patrick O’Brian would recognize. “Why We Fight” is a great example — don’t spare the volume.

Prog has changed over the decades but it’s essentially the same as it always was — adventurous music by and for adventurous souls. It buries the past behind while simultaneously revering it. Traditionalists may not care for the Decemberists — there’s an accordion and the occasional pedal steel guitar to contend with. But don’t let these oddities spoil the party.

The band played a recent show in Atlanta that was probably a typically frisky night on the road in front of an enthusiastic audience.  Good show. They’re not the most spontaneous group in the world. The song’s the thing — meticulously written and produced operatic shorts. A lot like Paul McCartney, you’re not going to get a new version of The Mariner’s Revenge Song” any more than you’ll get a techno “Oh-Bla-Di-Oh-Bla-Da.” Style morphing and improvisation isn’t the goal here. A thoughtful story with a beat is.

The Atlanta concert’s “Rox in a Box” was a highlight.

What does this resurgence of prog into the popular mainstream say about modern life, about music, about ourselves? Easy: You can’t keep a good idea down.


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