Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


We All Raise Our Voices To The Air/ The Decemberists

Genre: Indie folk/ folk-rock

EMI Music-Capitol Records/ Rs 395

Rating: ****

THOUGH they’ve been around for over a decade, I had my first exposure to the music of The Decemberists early last year, when they released their album ‘The King Is Dead’. What impressed me immediately was the earthy folk-rock sound which flowed consistently through all songs. The appearance of REM guitarist Peter Buck on three songs lent an interesting twist.

Marketed under the ‘indie folk’ genre, The Decemberists hail from Oregon in the US, but seem to have been influenced by a lot of British folk music too. Songs like ‘Down By The Water’, ‘Calamity Song’, ‘Rise To Me’, ‘June Hymn’, ‘All Arise’, ‘This Is Why We Fight’ and ‘Rox In The Box’ effortlessly blend both folk cultures, using electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums along with violin, bouzouki, mandolin, cello and banjo.

Before I could lay my hands on the earlier Decemberists albums, I checked out their latest venture, which is a two-CD live compilation called ‘We All Raise Our Voices To The Air’. Culled from various concerts held in the US last year, this 20-track collection is a must for anybody who enjoys live albums. In fact, it’s one of the best live albums to come out during the past few years, complete with pre-song announcements and crowd response.

Much of the credit to The Decemberists sound would obviously go to singer-songwriter-guitarist Colin Meloy, who’s been influenced as much by REM, Siouxsie & The Banshees and Morrissey, as he has been by 60s British folk revival acts like Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins and Nic Jones.

However, there’s some equally commendable support from Chris Funk (guitar, mandolin), Jenny Conlee (keyboards, Hammond organ, glockenspiel), Nate Query (bass) and John Moen (drums). Though REM’s Buck doesn’t play here, guest appearances by violinist Sara Watkins and the Portland Auxillary Brass Band on saxophones and trumpets lend variety to the sound.

The emphasis on this live compilation is on the newer songs from ‘The King Is Dead’. Yet, there is a fair representation from the earlier recordings too. The opening song ‘The Infanta’, a perfect example of the Decemberists sound, is followed by the brilliant ‘Calamity Song’ and ‘Rise To Me’ from ‘The King Is Dead’. One of the band’s earliest recordings ‘Leslie Ann Levine’, which was the opening song from their debut album in 2002, the more recent ‘Down By The Water’ and the 16-minute opus ‘The Crane Wife’ add to the charm of Disc 1.

The second side has crisp renditions of the pleasant ‘Oceanside’, the sing-along beauty ‘Rox In The Box’, the moving ‘June Hymn’ and the hard-hitting ‘This Is Why We Fight’. With its catchy riff and smooth pianos, ‘All Arise’ is one of my favourities. But the last two songs — both over 10 minutes long — add a new dimension. While ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ has clear progressive rock influences, ‘I Was Meant For The Stage’ starts off with outstanding vocals, before getting more psychedelic, using some brilliantly orchestrated trumpets, tenor and baritone saxophones.

Clearly, The Decemberists are one of the front-runners in the ‘indie folk’ movement, which encompasses 90s-and-thereafter acts blending alternative and modern rock with folk and country influences. The Net mentions a lengthy list of such artists, with Lou Barlow, Jeff Buckley and Beck being named as among the early practitioners. More recent names are Bon Iver, Kings Of Convenience, the Avett Brothers and the Civil Wars, with Blur’s Graham Coxon also experimenting with ‘indie folk’ on occasions.

It’s an exciting-sounding genre, on the one hand very reminiscent of the 60s and 70s music we grew up on, and on the other, having a distinct contemporary feel too. As for the Decemberists, their live shows are said to be out-of-the-world, with full-on audience participation and lots of stage effects. Though they have released a DVD called ‘The Practical Handbook’ in 2007 (which I’ve yet to watch), one hopes a new one is on the way.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

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