When The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy returns next week to Missoula for the first time in three years, he’s got some familiar old haunts to hit. The increasingly popular frontman and University of Montana graduate, in town for the band’s Thursday, Nov. 16, show at the Wilma Theatre, is hoping to grab some tangerine sorbet from the Big Dipper, a Santa Fe chicken po boy sandwich from Charlie B’s and maybe a copy of Bill Kittredge’s new novel, given that the professor emeritus was one of Meloy’s biggest influences. There’ll be a lot of strolling down memory lane for Meloy upon his return, but it’s taken the near-erasure of one Missoula moment to make it all happen.
“I swore to the band I wouldn’t make them play in Missoula again until we could play somewhere other than the Ritz,” Meloy writes in a recent e-mail interview, recalling the band’s last local gig in November ’03 at the since-closed club on Ryman Street (now Hammer Jacks). “Did you know that at that show if you paid $5 over the cover charge you could drink for free all night? Ye gods, Missoula! It reminded me of my Tarkio days where all I would do during a show was try and stay as drunk or drunker than the audience.”
Meloy has come a long way from his days drinking with Tarkio, the Americana-flavored quartet he fronted during his time at UM, and, for that matter, a long way from playing the Ritz. Meloy’s role as a tweed-clad media darling—bolstered by regular fawning from the likes of National Public Radio, enamored by Meloy’s references to Japanese folklore and Celtic mythology—was established years ago. And the band’s overall popularity, bolstered by a nostalgia-laden concoction rooted in traditional folk and radio-friendly pop hooks, and comfortably branching out to the occasional Irish jig or sea chantey, has steadily risen over the course of their last two releases, Picaresque (2005) and Her Majesty, The Decemberists (2003). That sort of momentum has led to the inevitable: The Decemberists left venerable Olympia-based indie label Kill Rock Stars (KRS) at the end of last year and signed with industry giant Capitol Records; their major label debut, The Crane Wife, was released last month.
“I think this record is the record we would’ve recorded for KRS, had we stayed with them,” writes Meloy, who acknowledges that fans have been leery of the switch. “However, we had a budget we probably wouldn’t have had if we stayed in the indie-world, which was pretty indispensable. It bought us the time to really follow every whim and not worry about potentially making the wrong decisions. We could always go back and re-work things without cutting into our schedule.”
The result is by far The Decemberists’ most multifaceted release. At times, The Crane Wife comes right through the band’s lit-rock wheelhouse, offering up radio-friendly insta-singles like “The Crane Wife 3” and “O Valencia!” At other, more delicate turns, the band smartly strips things down, such as on Meloy’s duet with Laura Veirs, “Yankee Bayonet,” and the slow build of “Sons & Daughters.” On the latter Meloy even manages to rhyme “untraceable” with “dirigible” in his trademark faux-Brit, nasal delivery. Any of these tracks would’ve blended in on a previous release and pleased fans with their updated takes on the band’s well-established sound.
The departures, however, come in cliff-jumping leaps, such as the 12-minute Pink Floyd-cum-prog-rock ballad “The Island,” or the uncomfortably funk-filled “The Perfect Crime #2.”
“I came to that stuff by way of Pentangle and Steeleye Span and some other ’60s-’70s British folk revivalists,” Meloy writes. “It was really [keyboardist] Jenny [Conlee] who progged all over that stuff, Jenny and Chris [Funk]. Jenny’s a big ELO and Jethro Tull fan.”
Even if parts seem misguided, the sonic experiments are a welcome diversion—and perhaps calculated—considering the switch to a major label.
“Probably from a fan’s perspective, we have a lot to answer for,” Meloy writes. “I hope people realize that we haven’t really changed that much.”
Further evidence of that point comes in a listing of Meloy’s numerous side projects: He’s still working with KRS, alternately producing a live album from his summer solo tour and putting the finishing touches on a DVD of the band’s early work, featuring, among other things, a stop-motion music video of The Tain done by former Indy arts editor Andy Smetanka; Meloy and his partner, artist Carson Ellis, also a UM graduate and responsible for The Decemberists’ album illustrations, are working on a children’s book about “a talking cat named Albert in 1920s Butte” due out in a year or so; and Meloy keeps Tarkio alive in his repertoire, playing tunes from the band’s catalog on his solo tour (earlier this year, KRS released a double-disc of the old material, backed by current Missoulians Gibson Hartwell and Brian Collins, and Louis Stein). That connection to the mid-’90s Missoula band not only keeps Meloy firmly in the local lexicon, but also raises a question of pressing local interest: any chance of a Tarkio track making its way to the Wilma show set list?