Getting to Know You: The Decemberists

Getting to Know You is a new feature (hopefully a regular one) that focuses on great bands with extensive catalogs. The saying “I liked their earlier stuff better” is older than Thurston Moore, so if you got into The Decemberists with Picaresque or just read about their upcoming album The Crane Wife, this post’s for you.

Long before The Decemberists, singer/guitarist and songwriter Colin Meloy was in a group called Tarkio. They were sort of a basic acoustic college-rock act (heavy R.E.M. influence and all), but they had a few good songs. You can find the band’s entire output collected on the two-disc Omnibus. This was, however, the first appearance of a future Decemberists track.

Tarkio – “My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist”: mp3

The Decemberists emerged with the inaccurately named Five Songs EP (which had six songs, natch), which found them pretty far along in their gestation period. Not quite as developed or well-produced as the tracks that made it onto their next couple records, these songs are still worth seeking out.

The Decemberists – “Apology Song”: mp3

The debut album Castaways and Cutouts is probably my favorite of the band’s. The pop songs aren’t quite as strong as they would be later, but Colin Meloy has yet to write a better ballad than “Grace Cathedral Hill.”

The Decemberists – “Grace Cathedral Hill”: mp3

I was introduced to The Decemberists in 2003 thanks to an impressive UCLA performance. The first of their albums I heard was that year’s Her Majesty, which is as emblematic of the band’s style as anything they’ve done – “Billy Liar” is gleeful guitar pop, while “Red Right Ankle” is a tuneful, sensitive ballad and “I Was Meant For The Stage” is an epic closer. Of course, it’s “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” which is closest to my heart.

The Decemberists – “Los Angeles, I’m Yours”: mp3

Next came the Tain EP, an 18-minute, five-part cycle based on a Celtic poem that rocks hard enough to evoke Led Zeppelin. You’ll have to find this one on your own, but it’s not to be missed.

Picaresque is the band’s third and latest full-length, and for a while it was my favorite album of 2005. Looking back, it doesn’t hold up quite as well as the rest of their albums, but Chris Walla’s (Death Cab) production and Meloy’s growing fearlessness makes it an essential part of their discography. Somehow I overlooked “The Sporting Life” for my top songs of 2005 posts last year. Better late than never?

The Decemberists – “The Sporting Life”: mp3

During all this, Meloy went on a couple of solo tours and band personel changed. Singer/violinist Petra Haden lent her skills to Picaresque and the accompanying tour, and Meloy released a pair of excellent cover EPs devoted to Morrissey and Shirley Collins. One of these tours took him back through UCLA, where I got to shake the man’s hand (he’s a sweetheart).

Colin Meloy – “Sister I’m A Poet”: mp3

If you’ve seen them live, you know The Decemberists are one of the most exciting, playful acts around, but if you haven’t, listen to this version of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and you can wail (or whale) along with the audience during the participation section.

The Decemberists – “The Mariner’s Revenge Song (live, 5.05.05)”: mp3

This brings us up to the present, where the band have earned a contract with Capitol Records and have their major label debut due in October. All the more reason to buy their old stuff from Kill Rock Stars so you can say you knew them when.

(Buy Decemberists albums from Kill Rock Stars Records)