The Decemberists at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Saturday (May 21), 6 pm. $15. 416-323-1251. Rating: NNNNN
If Charles Dickens started an indie band, it would probably sound a lot like the Decemberists.
Listening to their music is like flipping through the pages of a classic novel. Colin Meloy, the author of this Portland folk-pop sextet's words, instead of paddling in the sea of typical boy-meets-girl lyrics, thrives on antiquated characters in sentimental tragedies.
After obtaining a degree in creative writing from the University of Montana, Meloy gravitated toward the tradition of 19th-century folk writing rather than the realist prose he was taught in school. But when it comes to being a singer/songwriter, he wants to tear down that label, even if it requires making himself look funny.
"I think it's just more interesting for me to tell stories away from personal anecdotes," he says on the phone from his hotel room overlooking the French Quarter in New Orleans, where the band is playing later that evening. "In my opinion, 'singer/songwriter' has a negative connotation. It implies something maltose, spoon-fed and easily accessible. The whole idea of storytelling in a three-minute song with the appropriate amount of Telecaster guitar solos, to me that connotes blandness."
The current tour didn't get off to a great start. Only two days in, a trailer carrying $30,000 worth of equipment was stolen, but through donations and money raised from their eBay auction, their fans helped cover almost half of what was lost.
The Decemberists hold the same high regard for their listeners. You may need a dictionary when listening to the formal words littering their songs, like "palanquin," "gadabout" and "infanta," but Meloy says this is a testament to the people who listen to them.
"I wouldn't want to insult anyone's intelligence by dumbing down our lyrics. I do have high expectations of our listeners, or maybe I just think people are smarter than they think they are. Our intention isn't to educate people, but if they're turned on to new things because of our music, then that's fantastic."
Meloy himself was turned on to Keats and Yeats listening to the Smiths when he was growing up.
The Decemberists have always tried to marry their high-mindedness with lowbrow humour. They have a flair for theatrics and costuming. The playbill-style liner notes of their latest release, Picaresque, show that this isn't a band that takes itself too seriously.
After going high-concept with The Tain, a rock operetta based on an eighth-century Celtic poem, the Decemberists were itchin' to make a dynamic pop album. Picaresque keeps alive the sound of 60s British folksters like Fairport Convention while regaling us with the enigmatic adventures of Spanish princesses or tales of being trapped in the belly of the whale.
"Humour is very important to us and an important element to include in pop music. If there are too many Interpols in the world, then everyone will die of po-facedness."