Drawing on songs recorded during his 2006 solo acoustic tour, Colin Meloy Sings Live marks lead Decemberist and hero of bespectacled sensitive male indie fans Colin Meloy’s first “official” album release. Previous limited edition, tour-only releases have included a set of Morrissey covers (for the mopey person inside all of us), a collection of Sam Cooke songs (for the hopelessly romantic types), and a mess of songs by Shirley Collins (for those with high pain thresholds).
Unlike those previous albums, Sings Live primarily focuses on Meloy’s Decemberists tunes, though the album is sprinkled with a few cover snippets: portions of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and The Smiths’ “Ask” are worked into the songs, and the melody of R.E.M.’s “7 Chinese Brothers” (or, for the rabid R.E.M. fans out there, “Voice of Harold”) shows up in the break between “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade.”
With the songs stripped down to just acoustic guitar and voice, Meloy’s solo performances offer a different take on the Decemberists’ songs, which, depending on your point of view, are either textured and ornate, or excessively theatrical and melodramatic. This stripped-down treatment reveals the melodies that sometimes get buried in the Decemberists’ instrumentation, and is particularly striking on “We Both Go Down Together” and “On the Bus Mall.”
Many of the songs performed fall under the romantic and tragic story-song category Meloy is best known for, but it’s the more non-specific and abstract songs that are the most memorable and engaging on this album. Previously-unreleased song “Wonder” contains none of the locales and landmarks of the typical Meloy song. One of the best performances on the album, it’s poetic, moving, and sincere. Opening song “Devil’s Elbow,” from Meloy’s former band Tarkio, contains a few place names that set the song in a specific setting, but still comes across as personal and contemporary.
Meloy also works the crowd with his dry and often self-deprecating sense of humor. This approach brings a certain amount of levity to the performances, without with some of the songs might seem excessively serious. With the confidence of someone who knows he’s written plenty of good songs, Meloy presents “Dracula’s Daughter” as the worst song he’s ever written, and he’s probably right.
There are some drawbacks to this release though. The guitar sounds distant and flat on a few of the tracks, and occasionally can be difficult to hear with Meloy’s singing. The more energetic and picky Decemberists fans out there could also find fault with some of the song choices as too easy and obvious; the album versions of some of the songs performed are already pretty stripped down (“Red Right Ankle” for one), at least by the band’s standards. Those hardcore and demented fans hoping for an acoustic take on “The Infanta” will just have to wait.
Still, these are minor complaints – indie fans can never be completely satisfied with an album, right? As an album that showcases both Meloy’s abilities as a lyricist and musician, it’s well worth repeated listens.