Is there a more loyal bunch of indie-rock fans than those devoted to the Decemberists? Throughout the course of his new live solo album, Colin Meloy, the celebrated Portland band’s smarty-pants frontman, does just about everything a guy can do to turn an audience against him: He details the process of writing what he considers the shittiest song in his oeuvre—a little ditty called “Dracula’s Daughter,” FYI—then plays it. Crowd goes nuts. He requests some headbanging for his exceedingly jaunty version of “Barbara Allen” (a traditional number once sung by Shirley Collins, the English folksinger he mock-berates the audience for not knowing), then calls the assembled “the sorriest bunch of metalheads I’ve ever seen in my life.” Crowd goes nuts. He performs a long, aimless bit about sheep and ships and skulls that ends in a reminder that everyone in the venue will someday meet his or her “ultimate demise.” Crowd goes a little less nuts, but still way more nuts than you’d think.
So what’s Meloy’s secret? Tunes, of course—crafty ones that invite casual listening with big, melodic hooks and reward close attention with colorful Time-Life anthropology. Decemberists detractors can’t get past Meloy’s precious grad-student wordplay or his self-satisfied teaching-assistant mien, neither of which are diminished by the ostensibly modest acoustic settings here. But in clearing away the ear-candy clutter that’s increasingly come to define his band’s records (for better or for worse), Meloy enables even observers less convinced than those caught on tape to admire the tidy architecture of his material. (Sings Live! contains renditions of Decemberists “hits,” an oldie by Meloy’s first band Tarkio, a previously unreleased solo song, and a handful of covers. Oh, and “Dracula’s Daughter.”) Simply put, dude knows how to fit a vocal line atop a guitar strum—not a miracle, but a pretty nice trick.