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SXSW: The Decemberists play "The Hazards of Love"

March 19, 2009 | 12:09 pm

Meloy A barbecue joint in the heart of Austin’s party district may not seem like the best place for a composer and his ensemble to debut a serious new work. But the Decemberists, the Oregonian collaborative that realizes Colin Meloy’s folkloric conceptions, are a rock band, too. So just after midnight Thursday, the group took the stage at Stubb's in front of a lawn full of festival-goers sipping beer and Texas Tea and presented “The Hazards of Love,” its new “folk opera,” for the first time in concert. The show was presented by NPR Music, and celebrated the release of the “Hazards” album (out now on iTunes, due Tuesday on CD and vinyl).

This may have been the first occasion that the word “thou” was uttered on a stage that usually holds modern rockers like R.E.M. or jam bands like G. Love and Special Sauce. (Metallica is expected play there this weekend.)  But the Decemberists’ fans were ready for quaintness.

(More after the jump.)

Some concert-goers chatted loudly throughout the show, and one ill-advised reveler kept shouting “Take it off!” But most listened attentively, breaking into raucous applause after the loud parts. Meloy didn't speak until the encore, when, clearly relieved he'd made it through his epic, he gently encouraged his fans to retire to bed.

Meloy, whose muttonchops have grown more prominent for this promotional cycle, is literally a revivalist’s revivalist. He borrows from 1960s folk rock and such later song crafters as Robyn Hitchcock and Kate Bush, who themselves used antiquated sources partly to overcome the limitations of “baby, I love you” in pop.

“The Hazards of Love” is ultimately a tale of “baby, I love you”  -- though a fantastic one, featuring shape-shifters, a forest queen and a lass who gets tossed into the thistle. The hour-long song suite -- voiced by Meloy in the roles of the faun-turned-human lover William and the villainous Rake, and guest singers Becky Stark as Margaret, the ingénue, and Shara Worden as the evil Queen -- is a reconstructed fairy tale, in which lost virtue leads to tragedy, then supernatural redemption.

Musically, “The Hazards of Love” is difficult to grasp in one listen; it was obviously challenging live. Its songs blend into each other, with gentle acoustic numbers giving way to heavy, early 1970s-style rock. One arrangement recalled the Kinks; another caused a man in the crowd to say to his friends, “It sounds like Bon Jovi.” (That wasn’t quite fair.) Another featured five of the seven musicians onstage banging drums -- very avant-garde. But Meloy’s influences were absorbed in what has become the Decemberists’ sound: a catchy, polished, very contemporary version of “vintage.”

The biggest risk the new music revealed was a step away from easy hooks. Meloy is a master of melody, but this new work stresses mood-building instrumental passages and expository lyrics over addictive choruses. Memorable songs were entangled within the master narrative, but rarely jumped out. The band attacked Meloy’s tough changes with gusto, but the audience had to focus, too. (The group will be at the Hollywood Palladium on May 19.)

Sharing vocals was another experiment. Meloy chose well with Stark and Worden. Both are bandleaders in their own right -- Stark founded the L.A.-based Lavender Diamond, while Worden helms the similarly named My Brightest Diamond -- but at Stubb’s each stayed strictly in character. Stark, looking like a high school Ophelia in a flowing dress and white garland headband, used her flutey soprano to project naivete as Margaret, while Worden kicked out all the stops, echoing Tina Turner’s turn as the Acid Queen in the film version of “Tommy.”

The complex material exposed the limitations of Meloy’s voice, a nasal twang that not everyone loves. Vocally, he didn’t really distinguish between the two characters. Meloy has said that he doesn’t want to over-theatricalize his song cycle’s presentation, but the plot might have been more clear with one more male vocalist.

As for that plot, it renders “The Hazards of Love” as much a pre-Raphaelite work as a prog-rock one. Margaret encounters William, shape-shifted as a faun; they have sex and she becomes pregnant. Their love is threatened by the amoral Rake and the jealous Queen, a typically possessive fairy tale adoptive mom. The lovers finally find peace in a watery death. (Meloy has long held an interest in watery death.)
Such stories have an archetypal potency, but it’s a bit frustrating that Meloy opted for these particular “universal” images. Must the princess always end up floating in the muck? The powerful women onstage, not only the singers but also the essential keyboardist Jenny Conlee, seemed more suited to more current fairy tales like “Enchanted,” in which the heroine gets smart and makes her own luck.

In a way, though, the plot of “The Hazards of Love” is really just instrumental. Meloy wanted to spin a tale -- the saga of his pop elders’ fascination with a past that was as mystical and distant for them as it is for him. His new work accomplishes that goal. It isn’t a tribute to a Golden Age as much as a celebration of what so many generations have dubbed ageless.

-- Ann Powers

Photo of the Decemberists performance in 2007 by Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles

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