Saturday, January 14, 2006

Music artist of the week: The Decemberists

I know that at least a couple of my readers share at least some of my musical interests, so I will press ahead with another recommendation.

This is 'Picaresque' by The Decemberists who are from Portland, Oregon. They blend an interesting combination of styles, primarily acoustic, laced with strings and accordions, but in a rugged rather than cosy way. Their songs come across more as plays or short stories – clearly fictional rather than personal or introspective. They also deal with fantastic historical themes – tales of sailors, pirates, soldiers and chimney sweeps. But this avoids the tweeness of, say, Steeleye Span, who put me in mind of Morris dancing, or the didacticism of Al Stewart. They steer clear of the American civil war, which is the staple historical theme of groups such as The Band, REM and the Long Ryders. On the latest album includes songs about a doomed relationship between a feckless aristocrat and a peasant girl, while another is about hating being forced to play sport as a child. Their singer sounds strangely like Mike Myers as Austin Powers. He also appears to have swallowed a thesaurus – words such as ‘palanquin’, ‘ largesse’, ‘phalanx’ and ‘concubine’, not often found in pop songs – crop up on the latest album. They also have great song titles – such as 'My mother was a Chinese trapeze artist' from their early 'Five Songs' EP. And, unusually, given how rock'n'roll trades on the romanticism of American geography (Route 66 etc), many of their songs have British or European themes or settings.

As I get older I find that even music I like has a remarkable sameness – here a singer songwriter who sounds a bit like Dylan, there a band obviously influenced by Neil Young, country acts in the tradition of Gram Parsons. But The Decemberists reassure me that I haven’t heard it all before – they are true originals.

You can listen to samples of their work here.

1 comment:

Angus J Huck said...

Perhaps you ought to familiarise yourself with the Basque folk group, "Oskorri", which has now been going for more than 30 years.

Their output is a synthesis of traditional Basque folk music (very similar to neighbouring France), some more contemporary instrumentation, and modern political and cultural themes.

When you listen to Oskorri (or any taditional Basque folk group), you know that you are experiencing the front point of an unbroken traditional stretching back 40,000 years (when the first modern humans arrived in Europe).

Look at the ritual funerary scene on the Liria vase. The flutes, horns and trumpets are so familiar, as is the dance. If only we could hear them!

The final verse of Oskorri's "Aita-semeak" is very timely and apt for a contemporary Liberal Democrat.

Baina gaztea naiz eta daukat
Etorkizuna eskuan
Ez zaigu ilgo Euskal Herria
Ni bizi naizen artean

But I am young and I have
The future in my hands
The Basque Country will never die
So long as I am alive

For "Euskal Herria" substitute "the Liberal Democrats".