The song starts like this: "My mother was a Chinese trapeze artist in Paris prewar/ Smuggling bombs to the underground." And if that doesn't make you want to know what happens next, there's something really wrong with you. The singer's voice has a sweet reediness to it, his band's amiably rambunctious folk smells of old cafes and glows with gaslight, and the main character's father turns up "disguised as a Russian cadet in the employ of the Axis." Pretty irresistible.
The Decemberists, a quartet-going-on-quintet that sometimes sounds like it would be more at home in a Victorian gypsy cabaret than a Portland bar, pack a lot of charm into the 20 minutes and change of their self-released Five Songs CD. Straightforward folk and pop impulses coexist with wistful country sadness, the trill of Jenny Conlee's accordion adding melancholy and grace.
The tale of the Chinese acrobat, the undercover dad, and their son who grows up to be a sailor (oh, and there's more) may be the disc's best showcase for the talents of Decemberists ringleader Colin Meloy. Meloy played in an alt-country band and earned a creative-writing degree in Montana a couple years back, then knocked around Portland's singer-songwriter scene a bit. The Decemberists grew out of his solo work, but as Five Songs amply demonstrates, the foursome is a full-blown band now, anchored by stand-up bassist Nate Query and accomplished drummer Ezra Holbrook.
To hear Meloy tell it, the Decemberists' eccentric style--sort of Old Time (though mostly not), kind of country (hold the "alt"), catchy as all hell--allows experiments with narrative-driven songwriting seldom heard in pop's Verse-Chorus-Verse Kingdom. Though the Decemberists certainly have many love songs at their fingertips, Meloy is also anxious to tell tales of his own baroque creation.
"I really like pop songs," Meloy says, "but lately I've really been into creating things with a little more story than boy-meets-girl. I got fed up with writing about your angsty love life, your typical sad, sentimental twentysomething existence. There's too much of that already. So I figured, you might as well write from the perspective of a 19th-century chimney sweep. At least that's not being done."
The resulting funhouse folk is a little like an Edward Gorey drawing: simultaneously modern and antique, funny and a little creepy, gothic and realistic. And if that doesn't make you want to know what happens next, well....
The Decemberists play Thursday, Aug. 16, in Lola's Room at the Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., 225-5555 ext. 8811. The Vespertines and Light Heavyweight also appear. 9 pm. Cover.
New York Media Darlings Make Good
As I escort him to Chevron for a preshow packet of smokes, Julian Casablancas screams at the passing cars of West Burnside Street: "Alright, motherfuckers! Oooh, yeah!" If Casablancas seems to be working awfully hard to live up to the image of his band, the Strokes, at least he shrugs and offers a polite smile, as if to admit that this gesture was slightly ridiculous.
Once Casablancas and his crew of media-blessed New York City rocker boys take the stage, however, there will be no such mild-mannered apologies. Writers from the East Coast and the U.K. have anointed the Strokes as Saviors of Rock, 2001 Edition, and Casablancas' war-torn howl provides the clearest example of the much-hyped savagery lurking within them.
When Casablancas strikes the stage, that hidden marvel is unleashed with intoxicating ferocity. "The Modern Age" ignited the band's Roseland set in a blaze of twisted guitars and a throbbing undertow of precise rhythm. Guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi laced their hooks with well-timed snarls of harmony. Bassist Nikoli Fraiture and drummer Fab Moretti form the band's reliable spine, a thin, hard rail of rhythm.
Most astounding about the Strokes' 40-minute set was the taut professionalism exemplified in every note and sullen rock scowl. Their detached and well-developed façade of debauchery is enhanced by an extraordinary command over their instruments, all members contributing with a brilliantly brutal grace. Considering the popular press depictions of the Strokes as a motley assortment of oversexed and underfed pinup dolls, their Portland performance hinted that, on the contrary, the best part of their vaunted nightlife might be the music, after all.
Hiss & Vinegar
PLEASE, HAMMER, DON'T HURT 'EM.
* LATE ITEM! INTERNATIONAL CRISIS. How many scumbag drug-dealers, former war criminals and people with plain bad taste enter and leave the United States every single damned day? A lot, we're betting. So why are our immigration officials so concerned about Japanese musicians? KK Null, the genius guitar player for the groundbreaking experimental noise band Zeni Geva, was supposed to play Portland tonight as part of a national tour. But he won't. Instead, he got to spend two days in jail in Oakland and go straight back to Japan. According to an email Null sent to fans after his forcible return home, U.S. officials returned his visa application at the last minute, demanding information he had ALREADY GIVEN THEM. Thus, Null arrived in the U.S. without the necessary papers, and fans across the country were denied an opportunity to see this innovative, internationally respected artist. We've said it before: God Bless America.
* Right at this moment, all around the world, musicians are struggling to keep body, soul and artistic ambition together. They forsake family and friends for extra-round battles with the road, and tell health insurance to go screw so they can afford equipment. Thankless audiences jabber through their sets, club owners dicker with them over beer tickets, and most of their income ends up in the hands of landlords, gas-station owners, pawn shops and guitar stores. Meanwhile, in unrelated news, Russell Crowe's vanity band has added a second date to its visit to the Roseland! The hirsute Australian movie hunk's band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, may boast only the slightest of musical credentials, but boy--do they have box-office potential. The band's shows on Tuesday and Wednesday, Aug. 21-22, have both sold out, though adoring fans can taste a small sliver of the majesty at www.gruntland.com. Working musicians may want to vomit-proof their computers with Saran Wrap before visiting the site.
* The low grinding noise you may have heard last Tuesday came from the collective teeth gnashing of Portland "intelligent" electronic fans. Squarepusher, a.k.a. Tom Jenkinson, the London sound scientist whose scheduled Aug. 9 appearance at B Complex had digital intelligentsia in heat, pulled out of his tour dates in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. At press time, no official reason had been given for the cancellation, though the tour's San Francisco date also appeared to be in jeopardy. Quoth one employee of the tour publicist, "I've been here for two years and this is the biggest nightmare I've seen."
* The Rock and Roll Camp for Girls, starting at Portland State University next Monday, got slammed with young would-be ladyrockers who wanted to be part of the week-long summer camp of hands-on workshops and classes. According to camp communications director (a sign of the camp's success: It needs a communications director) Karamy Muessig, the 100 slots filled up nearly instantly when "the flood gates opened." According to Muessig, about half the camp spots were filled through targeted outreach to underprivileged kids before the camp threw open the books. Though it's now sold out (with a waiting list of about 100), its fundraising efforts continue with an eBay auction of rock memorabilia. Goodies include a drumhead signed by Gina Shock of the Go-Gos and an action-figure collection donated by Mike D of the Beastie Boys. The auction closes this Friday. The camp closes with a rock show at Meow Meow on Aug. 25. For more information, or to inquire about donations, see www.girlsrockcamp.org.
* Hiss & Vinegar does not particularly enjoy the taste of boiled crow, but sometimes you gotta chow down. Last week, H&V incorrectly stated that Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford was seen "canoodling" at the Portland Organic Wrestling match at Satyricon. We mistakenly believed that "canoodling" means "socializing," when, in fact, this old gossip-column slang indicates romantic hanky-panky. We were just trying to be funny--which our mothers did warn us about. Truth is, Stanford hit the POW show for about 15 minutes and talked to one of the wrestlers briefly, and this hardly constitutes canoodling.
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