The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!
Colin Meloy Sings Live!, Colin Meloy (2006, Kill Rock Stars)
Is it too early to start getting nostalgic about twee? As you may recall, twee was the dominant hipster cultural aesthetic of the mid-to-late ‘aughts. It’s defining characteristics were a sort of general demeanor of extreme gentleness, mason jars, and lots and lots of hand-drawn flowers. You know what I’m talking about: the sort of stuff that would eventually come to be mocked extensively, if lovingly, on IFC’s Portlandia, which took as its subject the city where twee attitudes took their most fertile root—if only in the public imagination.
The Decemberists were, of course, the poster children for this very specific era of Portland artistic life. The Rose City quintet synthesized the folk-leaning wing of American indie rock with the arch, character-driven songwriting of The Kinks and infused it all with the sensitive-boy literary pretensions of The Smiths. Their videos quoted Wes Anderson and their album covers—designed by frontman Colin Meloy’s partner, illustrator Carson Ellis—bounced off the eyeballs like the panels of a very prestigious, NPR-reviewed graphic novel.
The overall effect was catnip to a huge swath of geeky daydreamers in the early years of the 21st century, including (obviously) yours truly; the sort of guy or gal who still thrilled to the clatter and bang of classic rock while simultaneously fantasizing about getting their humor pieces published in McSweeneys.
Released exactly 10 years ago in April 2008, Colin Meloy Sings Live! features a well-chosen collection of material captured along Meloy’s 2006 solo acoustic tour to promote a pair of cover EPs: 2005’s Colin Meloy Sings Morrissey and 2006’s Colin Meloy Sings Shirley Collins (these would be followed by similar tributes to Sam Cooke in 2008 and The Kinks in 2013, all great.) The set list—totaling 17 tracks plus or minus some dedicated stage banter—covers pretty much all of Meloy’s career to then, in a sort of prolonged-campfire-sing-along form.
I seem to recall a lot of complaints around the album’s release about the sound quality—particularly vis-a-vis Meloy’s guitar. But I dunno. It seems okay to me. To be fair, Meloy’s axes here do sound extremely dry and metallic, like they were freshly strung two seconds ago. Which at times can resonate a little harshly, like a bunch of forks rattling around on a baking pan. And then there’s Meloy’s yawlping voice—one of those instruments that, for whatever reason, seems to slice directly through the aural spectrum despite not being altogether comforting.
The album begins with “Devil’s Elbow,” from Meloy’s pre-Decemberists group Tarkio—a dreamlike high-tide of noise that tugs at the feels immediately, seguing into the jaunty (and sort of stupid) “We Both Go Down Together,” off The Decemberists’ rococo 2005 breakthrough Picaresque. After that comes the first of Meloy’s many stage banter interludes. I’ll admit these grate pretty hard for me at this point, having heard them roughly 80,000 times by now. The only moment of humor that still holds up—in my opinion—comes two tracks later when Meloy plays the first verse-and-a-half of the misbegotten vampire lament “Dracula’s Daughter,” describing it from the stage as “the worst song I ever wrote.”
Parenthood does inform two of the album’s strongest and most heartfelt tunes: “Wonder” and “Red Right Ankle,” both of which find Meloy in awe of his newfound fatherhood, marveling at the physiological miracle of two beings combining their DNA to create a third. It’s an incredibly lovely one-two punch—totally devoid of The Decemberists’ default obfuscating theatricality.
The LP truly shines in its second half, with a stomping rendition of the Shirley Collins folk standard “Barbara Allen” and the melancholic “The Engine Driver,” featuring an atmospheric and effective call-and-response from the crowd. The album then hits its peaks at the 2/3rds mark, with a dreamy and discursive three-song medley of “California One,” “Youth and Beauty Brigade,” and a Smiths cover, “Ask.” In “California One” Meloy invites audiences on a loping, unhurried journey down through Big Sur, strumming and humming and daydreaming out loud. “Youth and Beauty Brigade” follows as a sort of brokenhearted call-to-arms, before finally settling into the familiar embrace of “Ask.”
During this latest listen of Sings Live! I responded most intensely to the album’s more pensive, transcendental material: “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect,” “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground,” “On the Bus Mall”—anything, basically, that called to mind the image of the outline of a human head, framed by a canopy of twinkling stars. The Decemberists would later shed many (but definitely not all) of their once hardwired twee-leaning tics, maturing into a stately low-concept roots-rock group—most notably on 2011’s The King is Dead, still their most successful album.
But sometimes, I miss the obnoxious theater-kid version of The Decemberists of yesteryear. Life accelerates as you get older. Sometimes you wake up and realize that you’re nostalgic for something you hadn’t even noticed had passed on, long ago. Luckily, those feelings are seldom more than a single campfire away. So bring your waterproof matches.
-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)