Album Review – Colin Meloy Sings Live!, Preview @ 9:30 Club

Approach this preview and album review with caution, it is highly-tainted by personal bias. Let me explain.

I have seen the Decemberists (Wiki) at least 6 times that I can count (I have probably only seen the Pietasters (Wiki) more, somewhere around 12 times).

I have played their albums into the grave.

Their concert with the BSO (Wiki) last summer sprinted into my top five concert moments of all time, at #2 right behind Rage Against the Machine/STP in the pouring rain of an HFStival which is in the top spot. Even if Jeff Magnum and Neutral Milk Hotel continued doing their thing, I still think that I would pick Colin Meloy as the better song-writer.

Now that we’re through the disclosure segment, let’s get to the album after the jump.

This is Meloy’s 3rd solo album, and his first of original material (the previous two EPs were covers of Morrissey and Shirley Collins). Moving beyond the obvious predilection of Decemberists material to tales of nautical adventure, romance and revenge, Meloy’s merit as a solo artist lies in his massive abilities as a gifted lyricist, songwriter, musician and ultimately, performer. The man knows how to construct a song that draws upon the strings of both your mind and your heart, apart from whatever period or setting the narrative is set in.

However, this album starts off unremarkable. The first track, “Devil’s Elbow,” is a relic from Meloy’s pre-Decemberists project, Tarkio and hardly represents the apex of Meloy’s abilities as a musician or song-writer. The performance captured for the second track, “We both go down together” off of Picaresque, is flat and relatively uninspired. No real vocal flourishes, just a straight delivery. A far cry from the power of the last performance I saw with the Baltimore Symphony.

Then, a one-two punch of two Decemberists songs that were tailor-made for Meloy’s solo acoustic treatment: “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” and “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect” Both songs soar to life, bringing a new sense of vulnerability that is unreachable with a full Decemberists’ arrangements. The nimble, swirling ebb and flow of the constantly moving guitar-line hypnotizes in “Gymnast” while “Architect” showcases Meloy’s vocals and his creative muscle. He seamlessly rearranges the vocals into Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” without changing the underlying guitar chords from “Architect.”

Two unreleased tracks follow. The first is “Dracula’s Daughter,” a pseudo-track where Meloy self-deprecatingly sings snippets from and describes “the worst song I’ve ever written.” This paints a perfect picture of Meloy’s charm as a performer, and his disarming boyish humor. The second, “Wonder,” is a rarity in Meloy’s catalogue, and a pleasure. A song about his at-the-time expected newborn child. It is entirely hopefilled with no dark edges proves he can exalt happiness as much as starcross’d and ill-fated love and destiny.

“Barbara Allen” is a track previously found on Meloy’s EP covering Shirley Collins. He channels some true power and it has been noted before that he seems to be a kindred spirit with Collins, both sharing affinity for folk music and themes. Narrative lyrics and heavy-on-folk song structure continues into “Engine Driver” and through the rest of the album, which features admirable performances of most major Decemberists song compatible with the solo acoustic format. This includes “A Cautionary Tale,” “The Bachelor and the Bride” as well as a gorgeous rendition of “Bandit Queen.”

“California One” and “Red Right Ankle” stand out as emblematic of the level of performances that should have been on the album for every track. Iconic and powerful, showcasing Meloy’s talents at full throttle. But I can tell you I’ve heard “We both go down together” performed much more effectively by the Decemberists. The version on this album falls very flat.

Despite the varying quality of performance, and more prominently tone, on each track, the overall quality is quite high. The biggest detraction to this album is it’s construction and tracking, both of which contribute to a disjointed and forced feeling since the album is essentially a gestalt, with tracks being culled from multiple performances. Doing this, you would have anticipated the best of the best takes; unfortunately this is not always the case.

The only other major weakness is the dialog tracks. While they are relevant and at times entertaining, they can make things really seem forced. It is clear they are used as a stop-gap, trying to recreate the continuity of an album recorded at a single live show, and failing.

Though the album is a strong showcase of Meloy’s work from his entire career in a live setting very different from the Decemberists, it is by no means a definitive archive of his best performances. A must-buy for Meloy and Decemberists fans. But the less-than-devout should give it a few spins before making the jump.

Overall State: 7 / 10

Track Listing
01 Devil’s Elbow
02 We Both Go Down Together
03 Evoking a Campfire Singalong (banter)
04 The Gymnast, High Above the Ground
05 Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect/Dreams
06 Dracula’s Daughter
07 Wonder
08 A Brief Introduction to Shirley Collins (banter)
09 Barbara Allen
10 The Engine Driver
11 On the Bus Mall
12 A Skull, a Ship, and a Sheep (banter)
13 California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade/Ask
14 The Bachelor and the Bride
15 A Cautionary Song
16 Red Right Ankle
17 Bandit Queen

Pre-order the LP Colin Meloy Sings Live! here at buyolympia.com. Album drops on April 8th. But really, you shouldn’t settle just for live Meloy on CD. Colin rolls his one-man show through DC, stopping at the 9:30 on Sunday April 13th with Laura Gibson. Tickets are $28 and I heartily recommend it. You shant be disappointed.

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