When the battering ram broke through the door of the basement meth lab near Portland, Ore., there, among the mixing tubs of camping fuels and boiled-down allergy meds, the acrid beakers and soiled workbenches, was — curiously — one motherfucker of a mixing board. Our justice system will be working out the exact TripTik of the piece of gear in the coming months (we’ll do our best to keep you posted), but for the Decemberists, a Portland-based troupe of scholarly musicians who prefer a feisty sea shanty to a 56-hour tweak, the recovery of the purloined console was an understandable relief.
“Of course they had to clean the thing pretty extensively,” says Decemberists’ main brain Collin Meloy. “It was dirty.”
From police reports and Meloy’s account, it happened something like this: On the night of March 17, after a set of gigs around their hometown and to get ready for a tour in support of their latest record, Picaresque, the band’s trailer (and, roughly a lawyer’s annual income worth of gear) was unhitched under the cover of night, while it sat in the accordionist’s parent’s neighborhood.
The trailer itself — sans gear — was found the next day, containing only the band’s merch (apparently the crooks weren’t fans).
“We eventually got a lot of it back, but I still have three guitars out there on the loose somewhere,” Meloy says. “And there is over 20 grand worth of stuff still missing, and it’s an incredibly violating experience.”
The irony of the modern-world story — a true crime encounter with drug-addled predators — comes fully to light with a spin of Picaresque, a tightly arranged collection of decidedly Old World songwriting. Even the record’s title (don’t worry, dummy, we had to look it up too) is bygone, something Webster’s defines as “characteristic of a type of fiction that features the adventures of a roguish hero, usually with simple plot divided into episodes.” Those narrative-driven episodes — tales from merchantmen of high seas and horsemen in full regalia — might well have been penned by the tunefully creative cousin of Bartleby the Scrivener. Musically, think of it as the Shins of the Caribbean: lots of lilting melodies, the occasional big backbeat chorus, and scores of violin and accordion, hammer dulcimer and acoustic guitar. The band’s jack-of-all-trades, Chris Funk, even plays a saz (in the Turkish mandolin family, natch) and a hurdy-gurdy. Pause for a moment to delight in what those might sound like in the hands of methheads.
Opening with the roaring “The Infanta,” the band launches their third full-length with the processional of a child monarch. And they’re just getting warmed up: The scholarly number sets the stage for the songs to come, which swing and sway through seafarers’ folklore and robust historical fiction. “The Sporting Live” recounts the tale of a failed sportsman who loses love — a theme which, in various states of frilliness, is the common thread throughout, whether the cause be the sea (“From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)” or death (“Eli, the Barrow Boy”). It concludes with the wicked “Mariner’s Revenge Song,” a mini-operetta that brings to mind some of Tom Waits’ carnie music and makes Rufus Wainwright seem downright mannish by comparison.
“I’ve always been interested in the tradition that runs in a lot of folk music and the British and Irish folk tradition where songs provided information and entertainment at the same time and were pre-Internet, pre-telephone, and pre-modern in a way,” Meloy says. “Traditional songs to centuries past — that style of storytelling has long appealed to me, even though it took a while to make that.”
So it follows that the latest batch of Meloy’s songs and their accompaniments are ripe with heady baroque lyrical charms, more than a touch of Portland-via-Portsmouth affectations and 25-cent (25-pence, perhaps?) words. Which is a good thing, because when he slips back into everyday speak, with sentiments like, ahem, “if you don’t love me let me go,” things are a little less interesting.
“I imagine it’s not really a different process than any other songwriter, sitting on their bed and writing a song,” Meloy says. “For me, I’m trying to write some sort of story that will move you beyond your immediate circumstances and bring you into a song so you relate to it, even if it is based on an influence that’s centuries old. There’s not that much beyond that — and trying to write something with the basic grasp of the tragedy of human experience.”
Even if those tragedies aren’t necessarily the ones that befall the rest of us.Friday, May 20, at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit; 313-961-MELT) with Rebecca Gates.