This may be a pet peeve of mine, but I need to declare that I hate it when bands pretend to be something they’re not, especially during live performances. My irritation factor regarding this issue peaked to new levels following the Decemberists' concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom last Friday. After listening to the band’s albums — including the recently released The Crane Wife — I’ve come to the conclusion the band plays indie pop music, period. That’s all fine and well, and I do enjoy most of their tunes, but rock they do not. So why was singer/guitarist/songwriter Colin Meloy acting like it?
The Decemberists played well enough. The live songs sounded like album cuts without variation. Meloy’s nasal, yet bright and powerful voice slashed through quirky arrangements that included accordion and upright bass, while he cleanly approached his guitar adding a crisp feeling to his meandering melodies. All in all the vibe of the Decemberists’ music suggests a mellow mood; I imagined the guys (and gals) would be shoegazing or at least projecting a serious visage considering the tone and message of their lyrics.
Many of the tracks revolve around taboo subjects such as infanticide and rape. The best song of the night, for example, “The Shankhill Butchers,” tells the story of real life assembly of mass murdering Protestants from Northern Ireland. Does that make you want to dance?
Well, apparently Meloy thinks so. He continually called for the crowd to participate in such classic rock ‘n’ roll motions as call and responses, collective vocals, and dance competitions. Granted he didn’t request such exploits during “Shankhill Butchers” or any other such song during the set; however, the biggest difference between the songs that sound like death and songs that sound like life come from a slight increases in tempos and major chords. The subject matter generally remains the same and hardly suggests a stark change in mood. Nowhere do sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll come into the picture. Do you like instead to party to the sound of murder?
I have a suspicion that the Decemberists transition to a major label last year (Kill Rock Stars to Capitol) might have something to do with Meloy’s showmanship. (Full disclosure: I have nothing to substantiate this claim because I’ve never previously attended a Decemberists concert.) After the release of Picaresque in 2005 made them one of the hottest acts to watch and got them on Capitol’s roster, I’m sure the guys (and gals) are a bit afraid of losing their newly found status. Hence the giant scrim with a painted scenic landscape and glowing paper Mache balls surrounding the stage, not to mention Meloy’s demands for a dance party. Isn’t that what people want in a rock show?
I’m sure being one of the two big acts more-or-less headling the CMJ music festival in New York City (the other being the Shins) pushed a lot of extra pressure on the Decemberists to play a memorable show. After all, almost every major media outlet in New York City and beyond was at that concert. I’ve got no problem with indie bands headlining huge festivals or signing with major labels, but I do disagree with a group like the Decemberists following the rock ‘n’ roll canon of live performance. It just doesn’t go with the character of the music. When will frontman learn?