Colin Meloy, Town Hall, NYC- 1/26
NYC ROLL-TOP: Reviving the Revivers on Times Square
When Christopher Guest needed a pitch perfect venue in which to stage a reunion concert in his faux-folk parody A Mighty Wind, he chose Manhattan’s Town Hall. Located just off Times Square, the theater became known as the workingman’s Carnegie Hall and a classy uptown home for the button-down proto-hippies of the ’60s folk revival. It was an equally appropriate stop for the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, who came to town armed with a tour-only EP titled Colin Meloy Sings: Trad. Arr. Shirley Collins in which he revives the ’60s British folk reviver. The last time Meloy toured by himself, he sold an EP of Morrissey covers. The music he performed at Town Hall often fell somewhere between those two (quite Anglophilic) poles.
Melodrama is in abundance in Meloy's songs. Coupled with his utter sincerity, the result is something that's gotten increasingly cuter and more precious from one Decemberists' recording to the next. Many of the songs Meloy performed told their stories at a remove. On "We Both Go Down Together," he sang of "parents wanton / a childhood rough and rotten," his language intentionally caricatured and made darling. On "The Engine Driver" (which followed) the historical phrasings ("I'm a county lineman / on the high line") just seemed devices to get to central Morrissey-brand declarations like "I am a writer, a writer of fictions!" and "I am tortured, ever tortured!" If not for Meloy's charm, it might all be too much. And it still might be too much.
With each declaration that he is a writer, Meloy feels less like one, but his moments are still plentiful. Over his set, Meloy touched on his increasingly deep catalogue: three Decemberists' full-lengths, a handful of EPs, tour offerings, and the songbook of Tarkio, his college band (who were recently reissued on a deluxe two-disc by Kill Rock Stars). He played a pair of new songs that made for good flipsides — one written for his yet-to-be-born child (aww!) with yet another rhyme about ankles, and one in Meloy's classic macabre vein about Belfast's Shankill Butchers. At his best, Meloy found an emotional core to the fantastic, and a fantastic core to reality. In "Grace Cathedral Hill" (which Meloy cleverly wound into the Red House Painters' "Grace Cathedral Park"), he gorgeously described being "wrapped in bones of a setting sun / all dust and stone and moribund." In "Shiny," he was "sweetly tipsy by the half-light."
Folksinger John Wesley Harding (how's that for a folk revivalist?) joined Meloy for a trio of 12-string abetted numbers from Meloy's Collins EP, including "Barbary Allen" and "Turpin Hero." Meloy closed the set with "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade," the 10-minute coastal epic that concluded the Decemberists’ debut. Meloy milked the transition into the song’s end, falling to his knees (ironically?) before soaring into the end (and eventually tagging on a bit of The Smiths’ "Ask" for good measure).
With the Decemberists recently signed to a major label and primed to make literary indie rock safe for the masses — what are Decemberists if not the people's revolutionaries? — it will be interesting to see just how Meloy chooses to steer the ship. Based on the rapturous screams at Town Hall whenever he did something — uh, what's another word for cute? — endearing, the sirens certainly bray sweetly from the rocks of adorableness. But he could just get weirder and more beautiful and, well, more literary. Being lost at sea might not be a bad thing for a self-described maritime aficionado such as Meloy. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the right words and the wrong words is the difference between the Classics Illustrated and the classics. Whether Meloy chooses to try to write the latter or not, he’s a talented voice, and will be enjoyable for a long time.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com.