Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.

A BRIEF FORAY INTO THE WORLD OF INDIE ROCK (In which I way overanalyze our latest album purchase)

Jeremy and I had a serious debate about the new Decemberists album, The Hazards of Love, earlier this week. At its heart was this question: Will it be more dorky if we walk down to Local Indie Record Store after work to pick it up together, or if one of us goes alone? We decided we would cut down on the frothing fanboy quotient if I went alone, but in the end, it didn't make much difference.

The indie record store near our house is probably the best music store in town, and Jeremy and I are incredibly lucky to live four or five blocks from it. They usually play a lot of thrash metal and experimental punk rock over the store's speakers, though, so I always feel like the guy asking for a glass of milk at the Deadwood bar when I go in there.

The shopkeeper was hanging out in front of the building, smoking a cigarette and talking to his friend when I showed up. I made a beeline for the new arrivals section just inside the door, and then made myself wander around the shop for a 60 seconds or so, so I wouldn't look like a complete obsessive weirdo. I poked through the folk section, wondering if I could afford the new
Neko Case album, Middle Cyclone, and then realizing it, too, was in the new arrivals section near the door.

"Hey, are you ready?" The shopkeeper solved my dilemma by peeking through the door.

"Yeah!" I said, probably too enthusiastically.

"Are you the one who called earlier?" he asked as he came around the counter.

"Um, yeah," I said, realizing it had only been about fifteen minutes since I'd called to see if they had the album in stock and I'd told him I would head down to the store "later tonight." He nodded his head and gave me the kind of guarded smile one usually reserves for members of evangelical cults. I paid and hurried home with the CD tucked into my purse.

We've had the CD for six days now, and right now I'm listening to it for probably the fifth time. Or the seventh. I've lost count. I tend to do this with albums I like, listen to them over and over again until I understand all the lyrics and end up humming the catchier songs under my breath at work. The thing about The Hazards of Love that makes my pathological behavior worse is that it's a concept album. The Decemberists have a penchant for telling sweeping, melodramatic tales with their music. I can't just add a song from it to my playlist. Oh no, I have to listen to the whole thing to appreciate the scope of the story they're telling. (Which, by the way, involves doomed lovers, shapeshifting, Very Bad Men, the words "irrascible blackguard," and anthropomorphized landscapes.)

The dramatis personi in the album are the lovers, Margaret and William, who our villians, the Queen and the Rake, attempt to keep apart through the skillful exercise of maternal guilt and kidnapping, respectively. Colin Meloy offers most of the vocals, singing for both William and the Rake, and filling in the gaps as the narrator. But by far, the most tooth-rattling and unexpected part of the album is the appearance of Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond as the voice of the Queen. She has a walloping vibrato that made me wonder if the Decemberists had worked some dark alchemy to raise the spirit of Janis Joplin for their album. Sadly, she doesn't let loose with the full power of her voice on her own albums, seeming to prefer a breathy, ethereal style that doesn't do justice to her range. "The Rake's Song" is another highlight, delivering a terrifyingly catchy song about infanticide. (What does it say about me that the villians always fascinate me?)

Colin Meloy apparently dubbed The Hazards of Love a "folk opera" on the public radio show The World Cafe, but I've also heard it described with a certain sneer as "prog rock." If that's so, I guess I must be one of those uncouth people who likes prog rock. I've also heard comparisons between The Hazards of Love and the Decemberists' earlier album The Tain, which is their rock operatic version of the Irish epic of the same name. The Tain is truly creepy and powerful, I would say more so than The Hazards of Love, first, because it's more succinct, and second, because ancient mythology is often more bizarre and resonant than anything we can come up with today. In fact, the strongest parts of The Hazards of Love are the ones that borrow from or emulate myth: the man who turns into an animal, the antagonism of nature to man, the sentient forest and river.

But then, I think of the time we saw Colin Meloy play a small portion of The Hazards of Love at a solo show last spring. With just his voice and an electric guitar, he had the hairs on my head standing on end. Jeremy and I are going to a Decemberists show in Raleigh this June, and I can't wait to see what happens when the entire band joins in to play The Hazards of Love live. It should be mythic.

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