Now, get this right: the Decemberists are not emo.
The subgenre of emo rock is often, in this writer's opinion, something to put up with while ordering a mocha. Typically, the genre focuses on the singer's psyche and past failures in love and life, an exercise that can prove unbelievably dull. Imagine rereading your diary from junior high school. Shudder at the thought.
The Decemberists know how to work drama. Their latest CD, Her Majesty the Decemberists, delves into the past, ripe with Victorian-era literary tropes, rakish mariners and the Dickensian downtrodden. It's not emo -- it's pure storytelling, told with a sense of grandeur and rather catchy melodies. Colin Meloy functions as both singer and songwriter for the Decemberists, whose sound has earned them comparisons to bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Belle & Sebastian, and a more focused Modest Mouse. The rest of the group includes Ezra Holbrook on drums, Nate Query on upright bass, Jenny Conlee on accordion and piano, and Chris Funk on theremin and pedal steel guitar. The Portland-based quintet will be performing at the downtown venue 32 Bleu with guests Dressy Bessy and Norfolk & Western this Saturday.
For Her Majesty, their second album, the group decided to push the musical envelope.
"At the time, we wanted to create something majestic ... something cinematic and orchestrated," said Meloy. "I played with instrumentation and arrangements to create something big. I think it worked out for the most part."
In addition to his job as singer, Meloy is the main songwriter for the group. With a degree in creative writing, it's obvious that he has a gift for storytelling. Though the album's subject matter is often old, the musical product isn't dusty. Meloy creates visuals as pastoral as they are disturbing. There's an aristocratic Jewess, slumming it while performing blindfolded in a Chinese acrobat troupe ("Shanty for the Arethusa"); there are chimney sweeps and gypsy uncles. "The Bachelor and the Bride" reads like a Joyce Carol Oates novel, with leading lines of "There's a wrinkle in the water/ Where we laid our first daughter."
The result is as pop-catchy as it is haunting. Meloy agrees, pointing to human nature's natural proclivity toward melodrama.
"Pathos is the heart of convincing and engaging narrative, to mix tragedy and humor. I personally find it the most interesting," said Meloy.
Meloy owns up to the album's Victorian fascination. The band's love affair with the past is apparent, even in their appearance. Dressed to the nines in anything from handlebar mustaches and spats to flapper dresses and Civil War uniforms, the Decemberists obviously have fun with their image.
Meloy denies that the wardrobe for photo shoots or shows is a gimmick, but sees it as a way to turn typical Rolling Stone-type magazines on their head.
"We try to disarm them, basically, to show how silly and absurd rock photography is," he said. "It's all about fashion victims looking grumpy. We're trying to make us look as uncool as possible."
Beyond gimmicks, with their vast literary and culture references, can their music appeal to the masses? Meloy thinks so, but in ways not obvious.
"We're surprisingly approachable," he said. "It's a misconception that we're exclusive -- that if you don't read books, if you watch Sportcenter, you won't like it. Actually, we're pretty populist. They're pop folk songs at their core."
-- Kara Luger
The Decemberists with Dressy Bessy and Norfolk & Western
Saturday, Oct. 23, 8 p.m.
32 Bleu, 32 S. Tejon St.
$10 in advance; $12 day of show; Call 955-5664.