March 14th, 2007 | by Amy Mccullough Music | Posted In: Columns, Album Reviews

THE DECEMBERISTS The Decemberists: A Practical Handbook (Kill Rock Stars)

Directors: Jeff Feller, Aaron Stewart-Ahn, Andy Smetanka, Nathaniel Freeman and Dennis Fitzgerald

[FOLK-POP] During the onslaught of summer shows that followed the March ‘05 release of Picaresque, the Decemberists became predictable: Every show ended with guitarist Chris Funk making giant whale jaws with his arms and frontman Colin Meloy beckoning the crowd to scream. Yeah, “The Mariner's Revenge Song” encore was fun the first few times around, but gimmicks get old—especially when highlighted in lieu of poignant songwriting and expert musicianship.

Not surprisingly, Portland's folk-pop giants made a big deal of “The Mariner's Revenge Song” at their Nov. 4, 2005, Roseland Theater performance, and Meloy (decked out in a candy-striped sport jacket) even prods yours truly, saying WW doesn't know how to have fun. Personal beef aside, this performance is not, by far, the Decemberists' best. The band appears awkward—all too conscious of the fact that it's being filmed. And the recording features quite possibly the most uncomfortable “jam” ever, between Scott McCaughey (R.E.M., The Minus 5) and Funk, who come close to getting on the same page for a moment, but lose their common vibe and drag the whole thing out way too long.

Aside from the disappointing concert footage, the rest of A Practical Handbook is definitely worthwhile. The five music videos on the DVD range from weird and artsy (“Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect”) to quirky (“16 Military Wives”) and cinematic (“The Soldiering Life”)—not to mention the totally unique paper-cutout productions of Andy Smetanka on “The Tain” (practically a movie in itself) and “The Bachelor and the Bride.”

The DVD also features a short documentary entitled Paris Before the War, which includes interviews with past and present members and footage of the band recording its third full-length, Picaresque (in a Northeast Portland church with Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla on the decks). It's nothing short of endearing, and the band's enthusiasm for “The Mariner's Revenge Song” is even explained: It was the only song the band was able to record live, sans headphones.

Perhaps most rewarding, though, is experiencing the members off-stage: Violinist Petra Haden seems just as stoicly weird; keyboardist Jenny Conlee is a joy; Chris Funk appears a goofball. And Meloy has no bones about his excitement: “I'm so perfectly happy with where we're at right now. There's no real reason to try to hide behind a fake coolness. It's so much more liberating to just fly my geek flag.”

Jackpot Records on Hawthorne presents a free screening of The Decemberists: A Practical Handbook Friday, March 16, at 5 pm (all ages) and 7 pm (21+) at the Bagdad Theater. The DVD comes out Tuesday, March 20.
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