There’s a moment in the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the Scoobies find Giles the Watcher / School Librarian singing in the local coffee shop. The reaction is split. The two girls are somewhat intrigued, and a bit attracted if not confused, while the guy is horrified. He’s horrified not by any quality of performance, but instead by the thought of having an authority figure, one as stuffy, learned and literate as Giles, turn out to be somewhat cool. This is easily analogous to Colin Meloy. This lead singer of the Decemberists has been wooing the über-literate NPR indie crowd for the better part of the last decade. In fact, NPR listeners voted their last album, The Crane Wife, the best of 2006 on All Songs Considered. Because really, isn’t Colin Meloy what you imagine Ira Glass would sound like were he in a band?
While fans of the Decemberists will have to wait at least another year for another full-length album, we at least get an unexpected, albeit two years late, outing from its mouthpiece, Colin Meloy, in Colin Meloy Sings Live! The album is somewhat a follow-up to his tour only EP’s in which he covers the songs of Morrissey and Shirley Collins. (In a funny moment on the new CD, he mentions these EP’s, with Morrissey getting a big ovation, and Shirley Collins getting a massive `huh?’) While the Sings Live! title may sound smarmy and dated, it is also charmingly accurate. Meloy’s voice is akin to a Muppet’s while the subject matter of his songs seems to evoke some kind of musical diorama, filled with gypsies, tramps and thieves, somewhat literally. On this tour, he even presented the stage as somewhat of a diorama, with Meloy flanked by a skull, a sheep and a ship. This trio of items was later discussed in one of the banter tracks.
This collection, taken from his acoustic tour in 2006, truly captures Meloy at his most `alive.’ There’s no need for Meloy to ask his audience if they `feel like he does,’ however, as we know they already do. They, as we, like Meloy’s charmingly affected vocals, his historically referenced cast of characters and, now revealed to those who haven’t seen his solo shows, his dry wit. If Colin Meloy’s singing voice is Muppet-like, then his speaking voice is a dead ringer for Dave Foley (NewsRadio, Kids in the Hall). Throughout the performances of songs from Castaways and Cutouts, Her Majesty the Decemberists and Picaresque, Meloy banters with the crowd in a manner almost as amusing as Flight of the Conchords. His discussions of the aforementioned Shirley Collins, the disparagement of the audience for their poor headbanging participation skills, and his description of a Colorado campfire with the responsible burro and the gauchos calling in the sheep, are as arresting as his intricately arranged songs.
But, there are songs, and they are, in turn, whimsical, studied and even funny. In fact, you can count the inclusion of “Dracula’s Daughter,” Meloy’s self-confessed worst song he ever wrote as one of the best comedic moments of the year. The song lives up to Meloy’s billing, but his honesty and ability to poke fun at himself, repeatedly, is what entertains. He follows that up with another unreleased song, but this one, titled “Wonder,” is instead touching, tender, and without a hint of the absurdity inherent in its predecessor. Other than one of the Shirley Collins traditional folk covers, Meloy mostly covers himself, which means a whole lotta `la di da’s,’ almost to the point of overkill. Though there are a few song `trailers’ that pay tribute to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” at the close of “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” and the Smiths’ “Ask” at the close of a version of “California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade” that is arguably better than the original. In this acoustic form, several songs such as “The Bachelor and the Bride,” tend to resemble Smiths songs even more than they did in their studio incarnation, but I might be under the influence of his Morrissey EP.
Regardless, Colin Meloy Sings Live! ends up proving that a meticulously arranged cast of musicians is not altogether necessary. These songs are so well written that they stand up to being `stripped bare’ as Meloy sings in the above mentioned track. Unlike most other recent live records I’ve heard, this one finds the audience respectfully silent throughout most of the performance. In a similar Jeff Tweedy solo recording, he ends up lashing out at the crowd because of a dull roar of talking that tends to be a staple in venues in the northwest. This silence is broken only at the end of “A Cautionary Tale” and the forced humming within “Red Right Ankle.” “Bandit Queen,” a rarity from a limited release EP, closes out the album in true quirky yet enchanting Meloy fashion. And this live affair ends up being part Decemberists, part John Darnielle, a bit of Jeff Mangum and somehow a McSweeney’s vibe all without losing much of the intimacy of the original show (or shows, hard to tell) itself. La di da di dum…
R.E.M (as Bingo Hand Job w/ Billy Bragg & Robyn Hitchcock)- Bootleg
Morrissey- Live at Earls Court
10,000 Maniacs- MTV Unplugged