Brookfield Basics

A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.

Sir Isaac Newton and The Decemberists

A young associate of Sir Isaac Newton once asked him how he had managed to accomplish all that he had.  The great mathematician and scientist pondered the query and replied, “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants”.


In his pithy quip, Newton paid tribute both humble and brilliant to the giants who went before him - men like Galileo, da Vinci, and others.

Newton’s insight came to mind when I was recently listening to The DecemberistsA friend told me of the band and gave me their latest CD - The King is Dead.  I rely on friends like her, the web site Pandora, and my niece to keep me aware of new and emerging groups.  But while I invest a lot of my listening time to new artists, I also keep in touch with the formative music of my youth; the greats of classical music, and more modern artists like The Yardbirds, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, REM, MoTown, The Allman Brothers, and so many others.

As I have listened to and learned the music of The Demberists, what I have come to appreciate most is the depth and breadth of their musicianship.  This band does not rely on bling, or outfits of spandex and prosciutto.  Most importantly to me, they don't rely on electronic gadgets to create their sound.  Eschewing all that, they instead use their instruments, their voices, and their talent - musicians who perform, rather than performers who choose music as their vehicle.  This same friend recently attended one of their concerts in Madison, and described how each member stood surrounded by an array of the multiple instruments they played through the course of the evening; said instruments including harmonica, organ, piano, string bass, guitars, violin, mandolin, bouzouki, and others.

The band lists as some of their favorite "giants" groups like Death Cab for Cutie, Dokken, The Long Winters, Norfolk and Western, and others.  Death Cab is very good, and I like Dokken...........the other groups I don't know, but will certainly investigate.


The Decemberists feature Indie/Ballad music, and some pop with an edge.  The band hails from Portland and is fueled and fronted by singer/song writer/story teller Colin Meloy.  As to some of the shoulders he may stand on, the bands listed above certainly qualify.  In the song Crane Wife 3, Meloy's bouzouki opens the track with a Scottish brogue sound.  From there the drums carry and propel the song, cantering like an unbridled colt through a bluegrassed paddock, reminiscent of Pearl Jam's Given to Fly.   

In Calamity Song one hears echoes of REM, an unsurprising dynamic given that REM guitarist Peter Buck was a guest performer for the recording of The King is Dead.  The song is plucky and rythmic, and the  harmonized chorus at the end is tremendous.  That same ending combines subtly insistent drums, bouzouki and strings, and fabulous harmonies, all meshed seamlessly into a Phil Spector-like "wall of sound".  

In All Arise we are treated to a rollicking, road house sound; the harmonies, fiddle, and piano all reminding me of Country Honk and Loving Cup by The Stones.  But my favorite song is Down by the Water, a track that is as close to a rocker as The Decemberists are likely to put out.  On the edge of the driving, purposeful beat can be heard remnants of Mick Jagger's harmonica from Midnight Rambler, wailing and carving its way through the song.  The most distinctive component is the hard-edged harmonies of Meloy and the group's lone female member, Jenny Conlee.  So few artists employ harmonies (or harmonicas) anymore, and I always appreciate bands and musicians that do.

Lastly, the band's evocative, image-rich lyrics harken back to Neil Young classics like Powder Finger, Thrasher, and After the Goldrush.  We may not know what Meloy is trying to convey with his esoteric lyrics, but are then forced to try and imagine, or better yet, personify and invest his lyrics with meaning and thoughts from our own experience.

With their first disc in 2004 The Decemberists are not a new band.  But they are emerging, gaining in recognition and popularity.  Their music consists pimarily of ballads and folk, with an occasional track like Down by the Water verging on rock. 

If you are looking for a sound that pays tribute to the past while creating new frontiers as well, give them a listen.

And maybe you'll meet Meloy and his band mates Down by the Water.

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