THE DECEMBERISTS at the Kool Haus (1 Jarvis), Monday (November 6). $23.75. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
As so many under-inspired artists are all too aware, you can't choose your muse.
Nor, it seems, can you decide the direction in which that muse might lead your impressionable hand. Such is the fate of Colin Meloy, hyper-literate leader of proggy Portland folk-rock phenoms the Decemberists.
Like any good classical bard, Meloy gives his muse fair props with an invocation on The Perfect Crime No. 2, a grinding bass-driven funk track smack dab in the middle of the Decemberists' magnificent new album, The Crane Wife (Capitol/EMI). "Sing, muse," he pleads, launching into a sordid story about hog-tied heiresses and exploding safes.
Judging by Meloy's penchant for convoluted narratives about sundry salacious subjects, it's safe to say his muse hails from the dark side.
Awesome when you're penning tunes for a savvy indie rock audience; not so much when you're trying, say, to write a kids' book about a talking cat.
"I've definitely realized I have to censor myself," Meloy moans, describing his latest project, a picture book collaboration with artist/partner Carson Ellis. "It's really challenging. The story's about a talking cat in Montana who's sent to deliver a message and meets a bunch of people along the way.
"When Carson and I were initially working on it, the first people he meets were, uh, a group of prostitutes. I quickly realized that wasn't all that appropriate, so now they're called 'pretty painted ladies. '"
Euphemistic compromises and dumbing down his subject matter are counterintuitive for Meloy, whose band's appeal and cult stardom are due as much - possibly more - to the poetry of the Decemberists' vivid storytelling lyrics as they are to the honeycombed pop hooks and hiccuping folky jigs of the group's sound.
The curious, vaguely Celtic sailor-jig cadences that creep up in so many Decemberists songs lend themselves to Meloy's often brine-soaked imagery. The Island, a three-part song cycle on their new disc, opens with an ominous siren song speckled with curlews and jetties.
Meloy claims his fascination with the sea has geographical roots.
"I grew up in Montana, a landlocked state. Whenever I did get to visit the ocean, it felt very poetic. I'm also drawn to maritime fiction - all the swords and ships and bloodshed."
The horn-rimmed hero is endlessly fascinated by literature. The titular concept of The Crane Wife - which plays out through another three-part song cycle on the album - is based on a Rumplestiltskin-like Japanese folk tale about a peasant who rescues a wounded crane, falls in love with the mysterious woman who subsequently appears at his door, then discovers his wife is actually the rescued bird.
While the Decemberists' adaptation of the story is fairly faithful, they create an intriguing narrative twist in sequencing the three sections of The Crane Wife suite. The disc opens with the tragic finale, then breaks up the flow with another song cycle called The Island and a half-dozen other tracks before telling the beginning of The Crane Wife saga.
Meloy says the unconventional track order was unplanned, a serendipitous suggestion by their producer, Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla.
"I still think there's a cohesive arc to the whole thing," he insists. "Just like a collection of short stories should have a cohesive narrative thread, even if it's faint. Like, there's a connection in my head between The Island and (closing track) Sons & Daughters; they're both escapist fantasy, even though the former's more dystopic and the latter has a redemptive theme."
For a band that really does top itself with each successive album, The Crane Wife is still a remarkable achievement: two unconnected song cycles clocking in at more than 10 minutes apiece, plus a handful of consistently solid boundary-pushing pop tunes on top of that.
Even more amazing is the fact that Meloy and his band managed to convince the suits at EMI (their previous albums, including 05's superlative Picaresque, came out on Kill Rock Stars) to let them release a geeky concept album for their major-label debut.
Meloy seems nonplussed.
"Yeah, you're dealing with a bureaucracy at Capitol, but that has an upside: you've got a number programmed into your cellphone so you can call someone else to sort stuff out when you have problems.
"They signed us 'cause we do what we do on our own terms, and they were supportive of whatever we wanted to do. Well," he corrects himself, "as long as we didn't turn in an album of all fart noises, I think they'd be fine."