The Decemberists wearing clothes that I wish the Decemberists would not wear
Decemberists + Cass McCombs
October 5, 2005
I had my angle all planned out. I went in to last night’s show all ready to write about how the Decemberists are everything wrong with indie-rock, how they’re the most visible symptoms of the genre’s 15-year decline from nobly arted-up quixotic fuzz-fuckery to regressively fetal comfort-blanket navel-gazing mush, how Kurt Cobain’s K Records tattoo casts a longer shadow over indie-rock in 2005 than his entire recorded output. Indie rock in 2005 is dominated by the likes of the Arcade Fire and the Fiery Furnaces and Death Cab for Cutie and the New Pornographers, bands with no use for rigor or chaos or rage or frustration. Some of these bands are good, but I can’t shake the idea that the drama nerds have taken over for the punks and the punks are, um, listening to rap or something. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a Fugazi or a Bikini Kill coming out of this landscape; everything is prim and meticulous and dinky and polite.
This brings us to the Decemberists, the most drama-nerdy of the drama nerds. I’d never listened to their records, and I hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to their set at Intonation, but I’d seen pictures of them rocking Robin Hood tights and read interviews where Colin Meloy talked about making the world safe for pansies. To me, these guys always came off as the kings of insular, bedwetting crybabyism, and the fact that Picaresque dropped the same day as Arular and ended up 71 spots higher on the Billboard charts meant that indie-rock America had its priorities seriously fucked.
But this line of thinking isn’t quite right for a couple of reasons. For one, bands like the Decemberists have been a huge part of underground rock since underground rock existed; They Might Be Giants have been indie-rock fixtures for longer than anyone except, like, Ian MacKaye. In his excellent Pitchfork review of the Just Say Sire box set, Nitsuh Abebe talks about two groups of 80s indie-rock historians: the group that only remembers Black Flag and the Minutemen and the group that remembers hearing those bands on college radio alongside bands like R.E.M. and Rank & File:
Both of these groups can be right, in the end, but notice how much the first of them relies on selective memory? Every time they talk about the “real underground” or nitpick about which bands were on truly independent labels, what they’re really doing is writing off those who genuinely liked 10,000 Maniacs or Echo & the Bunnymen– the equivalent of someone, 20 years from now, pretending that this decade was all about Wolf Eyes and Lightning Bolt, and nobody listened to Feist, or Annie, or Radiohead.
So pillowy drama-nerd indie-rock is nothing new. And another thing: the Decemberists don’t always sound like coffee-table NPR fare. The first song they played at Webster Hall was a Crampsian swamp-gurgle, something maybe approaching the same neighborhood as metal. They never came close to rocking again, but it was heartening to see that they knew how to do it. And they didn’t lean too heavily on the cutesy; their show didn’t pause for banter for the first twenty minutes, there were no costume changes, two of the dudes in the band look like mechanics, and the off-kilter lurch of many of their songs is more proggy than folky. Their drama-nerdery manifested itself in other ways: practiced professionalism, big-moment chorus shoutalongs, and birthday dedications, all of which are good things. A little bit of their thing still goes a long way if you have a limited tolerance for Meloy’s nasal bleat or fake-gypsy polka waltzes (or if you prefer Gogol Bordello‘s frantic and chaotic fake-gypsy polka waltzes). But even with the girls in the front row singing along while doing that thing where they stick their chins in the air and sort of shake their hair adoringly, even where everyone was supposed to scream at the giant paper whale-puppet, even when it got boring (which it did), the Decemberists never seemed like they were destroying indie-rock last night. So, good for them.
Download: “The Engine Driver”
Voice review: Brandon Stosuy on the Decemberists’ Her Majesty the Decemberists
Opener Cass McCombs is someone I know from parties and barbecues in Baltimore. He’s a good dude and, since he started blowing up, a local-music hero, so I always felt bad for not liking most of his awkward, unwieldy indie-pop shuffles. But these days he’s playing acoustically with a bass player and a harmonizing female singer instead of a full band, and it’s a good look for him. The open, uncluttered acoustic arrangements let his songs breathe and relax into themselves instead of drowning in shambling clumsiness, and it turns out he’s a good songwriter after all. And as a bonus: he could teach these neo-folk kids a few things about that Simon & Garfunkle harmonizing shit. If he keeps up like this, McCombs could give Baltimore enough local pride to last until season four of The Wire starts.
Download: “Your Mother and Father”