By Jeb Gavin
At theater festivals back in high school a friend started a game we’d play when bored and feeling rambunctious, a game I named “…so then I said.” The rules of the game are simple: walk up to a group of strangers in the middle of a conversation, and with a single line meant to sound like the end of an anecdote, silence them- as clearly your anecdote is more interesting than their conversation. Shorter is better, as you need to get it out in one breath, but the only rule is it must begin with the phrase, “…so then I said.” The line which started it all was my buddy Brian’s favorite, “…so then I said, ‘that’s not my leg!’ And the next thing you know, I’m engaged to be married!” I was less straightforward, preferring, “…so then I said, ‘sounds like someone had a fun-ectomy!” But it turns out they took both his kidneys.” What can I say, we were erudite weirdos among the theater geeks like guinea pigs among hamsters- of them at a glace, but very different upon close inspection. Not the point. I learned early on, by trial and error, the minimum amount of information one needs to tell a story, to convey the idea of a narrative. While I don’t think Colin Meloy puts on a bad show by any stretch of the word, there’s something about the way he tells stories through his music I find off-putting, and his show Tuesday night at the Lincoln Theater helped me to understand why.
I think almost all of his songs can be split into two categories, the anecdotal and the allegorical (you could just as easily any lyricist’s songs could be divvied up as such, but with Meloy it seems obvious when he’s singing about a friend’s stolen bicycle and when he’s singing about steam-punk apocalypses.). The more fanciful songs, which are almost all Decemberists songs, sound great fit into the elaborate music of The Decemberists. But they need Chris Funk orchestrating the sound, building up all the ancillary bits so the narrative doesn’t sound stark or foppish. The little stories and explanations help some, like learning “The Calamity Song” came from trying to get his son to eat oatmeal and naan, but it doesn’t liven the song itself, it’s just a cute preface. Alone with a six, eight, or 12 string guitar and maybe a harmonica, stories of piracy and seaside hideaways are too fanciful for the sound.
At one point Meloy covers The Kinks’ “Do You Remember Walter?” which is a pretty solid little cover, though I’d almost always rather hear “Waterloo Sunset” (both appear on the covers EP created especially for the tour. At one point he explains how he was having trouble deciding on an artist to cover for the tour EP, and The Kinks won out over Quasi.). Except with this cover Meloy invites a comparison to Ray Davies, one of the finest narrative songwriters ever. It’s good company, particularly as Colin can affect an un-British version of Ray’s vocal tone, but also not flattering if you’re waiting to hear a well-crafted slice of life deepening in meaning the longer you listen. The song comes sandwiched between two Decemberists tracks stuffed with literary references and whorls of imagery, and they’re not bad, but for a brief moment you think to Davies reminiscing about his youth and suddenly Meloy looks like he’s sprinting just to keep up with Davies at a light jog.
Even the last line of “Do You Remember Walter?” mockingly mirrors the new song Colin opened with called “The Singer Addresses His Audience.” The opener is about how the artist must grow; while he owes the audience, the audience has to acknowledge the artist is a person evolving creatively, and also someone who has to eat- which is why you should be forgiving if you one day hear your wedding song used in a commercial. It’s a clever song; I like it, I get it, I understand the sentiment, perhaps even aside from the imagery. But it’s laps around the base of the mountain, whereas Ray tosses off as an afterthought, “Yes people often change, but memories of people can remain.” Given The Kinks song spends three minutes describing the past, only the good times, lamenting what’s become of Walter, the last line lingers intentionally as an ice burn in your mind. Why the hell do you have to remember things so fondly? Why can’t you just live in the moment? Why write really good, theatrically elaborate songs only to try and tell the same story without the necessary tools for the job? Alone, Meloy is more effective singing his anecdotes, and even then he pales in comparison. When he tries to take on his own band’s material alone, even though he wrote it, he’s all the more outmatched.
This was a good show. Opener Eleanor Friedberger reminds me of Joni Mitchell thrust into the role of zookeeper for a collection of fascinating, barely contained guitar sounds. I could listen to her coo and finger pick for hours. But when Colin Meloy covers Colin Meloy, he does himself a disservice. He’s a good storyteller, and part of being a good storyteller is knowing the most effective way to tell your story. Sometimes being alone on stage with a guitar is hamstringing yourself with simplicity. You can’t always tell the story you want, so you need to pick out the ones that work best. This is all part of a trial and error process, but it doesn’t make for the best concert.
The Singer Addresses His Audience
July, July [Decemberists]
Hank, Eat Your Oatmeal >
Calamity Song [Decemberists]
Do You Remember Walter? [Kinks cover]
Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga) [Decemberists]
Shiny [By request]
The Apology Song [Decemberists]
January Hymn [Decemberists]
Bandit Queen [Decemberists]
The Crane Wife 1&2 [Decemberists]
The Crane Wife 3 [Decemberists]
Further lines from …so then I said.
…so then I said, “what kind of Hell’s Angel has a ‘Born to Hand Jive’ tattoo!?”
…so then I said, “yeah, hemp soap seems like a good idea, but how are you going to market it, as the soap damn dirty hippies use?”
…so then I said, “look, I don’t care what kind of custom’s agent you are, that’s between me and my proctologist!”
…so then I said, “blue M&M, red M&M, whats the difference? They all end up the same color in the end!” [unabashedly stolen from The Simpsons]
…so then I said, “this is exactly like that scene in The Deer Hunter, except instead of prison camp, it’s Atlanta; and instead of Russian roulette, its air hockey; and instead of Vietnamese, its Yiddish!”