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The Decemberists make perfect lit-rock

Photo courtesy Alicia J. Rose
Perhaps with the Decemberists blowing through town, it will make Tucson a little cooler. Ironically, they are the hot ticket for Saturday night. See them at the Rialto Theatre Saturday at 8:30 p.m.
By Michael Petitti
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 15, 2005
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It is no exaggeration to dub Portland's The Decemberists among the smartest of the indie music brain bands like Okkervil River and The Hold Steady. Likewise, it's not going out on a limb to attribute most of The Decemberists' musical and lyrical prowess to frontman/songwriter Colin Meloy, one of indie music's brightest and wordiest troubadours.

The band's latest release, The Decemberists Present Picaresque, was released in March to rave reviews (including - to date - this publication's only perfect score of the year). Over the course of 11 tracks, Meloy and his bandmates made aged tales of Victorian love, barrow boys and being swallowed by a whale palpable to the iPod and laptop generation.

In case you're missing the hint (the perfect album score, adulation upon adulation), you should be psyched about The Decemberists coming to The Rialto Theatre on Saturday. Meloy recently spoke about the band's excitement over the second leg of their Picaresque tour, despite a tumultuous start to their first leg when their van and much of their equipment - most of it later recovered - was stolen.

"It was difficult," Meloy said. "It was a big hit at the beginning of the tour. To have that massive expense of replacing all of those instruments kind of turned that spring tour into a Decemberists' benefit tour."

However, such annoyances did not stop the band from putting on one of the most engaging live shows traversing the country over the spring and summer. They entertained midsized venues as effortlessly as they awed the literally thousands of fans who saw them during their summer festival circuit, including a performance at SummerStage in Central Park.

"That was great," Meloy said. "It was so much fun playing Central Park. We met the Stars for the first time and they were really sweet, and it was great hanging out with Death Cab because they're friends of ours. It was kind of like old home week."

The band also wowed the crowds when they played indie Web site authority Pitchforkmedia's Intonation Festival. They even managed to convince thousands of concertgoers to crouch down and jump up during a particularly rousing rendition of their song "The Chimbley Sweep."

"That (Intonation) was a blast," Meloy said. "For a first-time festival for those Pitchfork guys it was really remarkably well run and organized and really well attended."

However, it was not all roses for the band as The Decemberists did suffer a casualty when longtime drummer Rachel Blumberg departed earlier this year. Though the band certainly misses her presence, Meloy notes the split was amicable and everyone is pleased with the results.

"I think there are certain things that we miss about having Rachel along," Meloy said. "There were certain things that Rachel does that you can't really replace, but we got a new drummer John Moen who's fantastic - he plays with The Jicks, as well - and Petra Haden who has been playing violin, doing some of the string parts on the road and doing backing vocals - she's a phenomenal singer. They have actually given us a chance to improve on certain things. With six people, now we're a little bit freer to really try and nail some of the arrangements we recorded on the album."

Those arrangements were recorded interestingly enough in a former Baptist church in Portland, Ore. Thanks to close friend and Death Cab guitarist Chris Walla's impeccable production, the band was able to create an album as divine as its studio setting.

"I think we're all amateur ProTools people, and I think we didn't really trust our own abilities enough to do it at home," Meloy said. "We really enjoyed working with Chris Walla, so we kind of met in the middle and had Chris come down to Portland and basically had him bring his studio down, and he built his studio inside this church temporarily for about three weeks and we recorded the record there. It was something between recording in the studio and recording at home."

One of the band's most admired aspects is its lyrics and song patterns, which are mostly constructed by Meloy. Despite the band's consistently witty lyrics and savvy musical shifts, Meloy denies having a set, stock process.

"It all just comes in different ways," Meloy said. "I usually just sit down and work on an idea that will be in the back of my head, and it will suggest a melody, or sometimes a melody just playing around on the guitar will suggest an area or a character or a pattern of speech, so there's no one way about it."

Structured or not, the band's music is frequently deemed literary-folk-pop; among other descriptors like brilliant, stunning and marvelous. This is something Meloy is understandably indifferent about.

"There are certainly worse things we could be labeled," Meloy said, "but nobody likes to be labeled; be put in a corner. If I were a music journalist, I would probably apply the same name, I mean, being an avid book reader and fan of literature and a fan of pop and a fan of folk, I guess there are certainly worse things you could be labeled."

The one thing Meloy promises those who have seen The Decemberists in Tucson before is a more rested performance. Not that they didn't have the audience cracking up when they performed an improvised musical reinterpretation of their 20-hour drive during "The Chimbley Sweep" in their first show here at Plush.

"Every time we've played in Tucson we've just been shells of people," Meloy said. "We've always just done like a 10-hour drive or something like that. This time we're actually on a bus, so I imagine we'll actually be well rested when we come through."

Rested or not this most likely will be the semester's top show, and we'll take them any way we can get them. To catch The Decemberists - that is when you see The Decemberists (we're really not making this a choice) - head to The Rialto Theatre Saturday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $14 day of the all ages show.

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