The Voice Speaks Up About The Decemberists

When we came home from The Decemberists show at Hammerstein during CMJ last week, we couldn’t help but feel Colin’s admittedly hammy enthusiasm for the space and his crowd to be genuine and touching, all while underlying the band’s performance of one of the year’s best albums. The Village Voice? Not so much. Scribe Chris Ott has been known to gleefully lay into acts that’ve attained some form of critical mass in the past, but we’re thinking Colin may have said something about his momma. From The Voice’s review of the Hammerstein show:

Inside, dozens of trend-spotting writers, bloggers, and shills are buzzing about the best CMJ performances of 2006, particularly the Knife, a Depeche Mode throwback whose sadly asexual black-lit glow-stick pantomime at Webster Hall was so impenetrable it just had to be art. Tonight demarcates the other side of the hipster spectrum: the familiar world of self-pitying white people looking for reasons to be unhappy, or at least suspicious, despite incalculable birthright advantages. The Decemberists look down from the top of this mountain, trying to make a living off of blasé malaise.

“We’re going to try to pretend we’re at the Mercury Lounge,” pleads leader Colin Meloy after a few rote numbers from the band’s back catalog. It’s a strategic ploy, setting up the midsized Ballroom as a straw man for the Big Time (the band’s latest, The Crane Wife, is their first for major label Capitol), when in reality there are probably less than 2,000 people here. Regardless, Meloy’s foot-shuffling apology assumes that large portions of the crowd believe they are in on a secret, that the Decemberists are an untainted troupe of backwoods poets we should expect to be seeing in a much smaller, more intimate setting. This is what Meloy needs to believe.

Who could be embarrassed to play the Hammerstein Ballroom, and of all people, Colin Meloy? This guy couldn’t wait for success to validate his ego, powering half a decade of dilettante dalliances spanning Civil War period costume, Japanese folk tales, Irish solidarity poses, and his recent declaration that the Decemberists are “a wartime band.” Right, Colin, America’s iPods are burning. But more confounding than any contradictory professionalism is Meloy’s core conceit: He believes he is a gifted and entitled writer, fit to tackle and retranslate whatever mythologies interest him.

In addition to indulging his Anglophile streak (solo acoustic Morrissey and Shirley Collins cover EPs), the Decemberists released The Tain (2003), inspired by the Ulster cycle, the centerpiece of pre-Christian Celtic mythology. Just as Meloy flubbed “pleased tea” for “greased tea” from the Mozzer’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” he mouthed off about the impact the “tay-n” cycle had on him. It’s pronounced “torn.”

In the past, the Decemberists’ 17th-century laments were merely soaked in solecism?coy cunning from a clever aesthete with a woodcut fetish who’d seen Rushmore too many times. But Meloy is increasingly emboldened by success, becoming more and more literal. You get the sense he scans encyclopedias for his cautionary chides, casually selecting tales famous as the boogeyman in their native lilt and fashioning them into cuddly Wes Anderson pirouettes, an indefensible, objectifying condescension born of bravado and ignorance. Meloy is so embarrassed to be from Helena?and America generally?that he wraps himself in pasts and cultures he could never understand, in an effort to co-opt their dramatic import. I’m sure somebody in his family is Irish, but it’s the predefined, tidy, and glorified certainty of this history that’s Meloy’s inspiration, not his ostensible, however distant, roots. He’s overreaching?at best, he could gradually improve and evolve into our generation’s Andy Partridge.

Did you catch that surreptitious stab at The Knife, too? Sly dog. And not only isn’t Ott buying the humility — he’s even after Colin’s pronunciation! But at least he ends with a compliment, backhanded as it is. Being Andy Partridge would be pretty awesome. Well maybe not from a performance perspective. Wait, was that even a backhanded compliment? Maybe it was a damning wish! Ahh, so tricksy.

UPDATE: As some of you have pointed out, the debate raged on into the reader comments (as it tends to), with Chris chiming in and defending himself — to Colin’s girlfriend!

carson on Sun Nov 12, 13:53, 2006, says:
Dear Chris,

Why is this review so spiteful and weirdly personal? You’re lucky nobody wants to write a piece about you and the inferiority complex/unrequited romantic obsessions/high school ass-kickings/unrealized dreams that undoubtedly led you, presumably a music fan, to make a career writing bitterly hateful music reviews. I’m sure every other time you write one, the girlfriend of a band member sends a disgusted letter to your editor. Hopefully this letter will be the one that finally makes you realize you suck.

Carson Ellis, Colin Meloy’s girlfriend

chris-ott on Mon Nov 13, 14:36, 2006, says:
So let’s see. Colin emails me within three hours of this posting online – it hasn’t even printed – with a similar message, telling me I should keep his anger about the piece “between us.” A laughable appeal to chivalry on its own – which I planned to ignore entirely – but then his girlfriend blows through the next day with a similarly spiteful, sadly stereotypical “mean rock critic” missive. Apparently you didn’t get Colin’s memo about “keeping it off the message boards,” Carson…

So to you Colin, and your girlfriend, waiting under some cathedral spire for your heroic return: Making and promoting music – art of any kind – is a proposition, one necessarily followed by debate. Whether it’s the PTA, your suite-mates, or Rolling Stone, you are offering perspectives and talking points. The better and more unique your art, the greater and more impassioned the response. That this escapes you as a point of pride – that it is surprising enough to upset you – is disheartening in light of your music’s reliance on cleverness, history, and not least make-believe.

I guess the mistake I make – that so many music writers make – is in presuming our subjects are at least half as clever as they would have their audience believe. I write under the assumption that my peers in the music world are smart enough to know that what they do is at best a good time shared by all, one that should be enjoyed while it lasts and taken as seriously as a pie-eating contest on a cloudy day. I don’t care if you’re Slowdive or Sigue Sigue Sputnik: you will regret every minute you didn’t spend laughing. Lighten up.

It’s uncommon that anyone ascends to the level the Decemberists have, but your band has not gotten here for lack of trying. You are no more sacrosanct than Nickelback. Don’t delude yourselves that this piece or my distaste is somehow a “personal” thing – my disbelief in your act is shared by a lot of people, many less invested in the music world than I am. Is it that you’re pissed I used “solecism” before you could work it into your next EP? Or did Capitol already send you the pink slip? I thought they were waiting until March to clean house…


Bartholomew Teeling IV

Damn, maybe if we were mean in our review Colin would email us, too! Hey, you suck, Meloy. (tips at stereogum dot com)