Recently I attended a reader’s and writer’s session given by Patrick Ness, author of the fantastic young-adult ‘Chaos Walking‘ trilogy, six novels and a collection of short stories. His most recent novel, ‘The Crane Wife‘ is a damn good read. When I first saw ‘The Crane Wife’ in my local bookshop, I didn’t immediately think of the Japanese fable but rather of the album of the same name by indie folk rock band, The Decemberists. I picked up the book and, on the first page, these lyrics:
‘And all the stars were crashing round
As I laid eyes on what I’d found.
In the R & W session Patrick talked about his love of music and how he endeavoured to create stories that have the same feel and mood as the songs he loves. Each one of his books is crafted with a particular song in mind and, in the case of ‘The Crane Wife’, it is The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife Part 1 & 2. Here it is here – hang in until the 5.35 minute mark when the languorous and melodic second part starts:
We can all relate to the concept of the feel of a song staying with us, as opposed to the enjoyment of the song at the time. After the Ness talk I was in discussion with someone infinitely wiser than myself and her reply was so succinctly perfect:
‘I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.’
(The fifth stanza of ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird‘ by Wallace Stevens).
Certainly for me, it’s the ‘just after’ that makes me listen to the song again, and again and yet again.
The Decemberists are fronted by Colin Meloy, a clever-clogs songwriter whose songs have a vaudeville and theatrical feel to them. Just as Patrick Ness writes stories to songs, Colin Meloy writes stories as songs usually with a cast of rag-bag and fascinating characters – his brave fifth album, 2009’s ‘The Hazards of Love’, is a full-on whimsical rock opera (and perhaps, if you’re not familiar with the band’s music, not one that you would start with first). I’ve heard the Decemberists described as making ‘thesaurus rock’ but this doesn’t take into account that most of the songs have a storyline and each album, a theme – more like a collection of short stories. The other members of the band: Jenny Conlee; Nate Query; Chris Funk; John Moen, apart from having excellent surnames, play a wide range of instruments including the Wurlitzer organ, accordion and violin, giving the band a folk chamber music sound.
The Decemberists broke out to a wider audience with their third album, 2005’s ‘Picaresque’. This is still my favourite and one that I think captures the essence of their sound. However it was their sixth studio album, ‘The King is Dead’ that catapulted them into the big-time. It features Gillian Welch’s gorgeous bluegrass voice and seasoned guitar from R.E.M’s Peter Buck. This album is instantly likeable. Gone is the baroque balladry of earlier albums, replaced by a dusty americana sound. It is more for the heart than the brain. Have a listen to the pastoral simplicity in June Hymn (the Welch-Meloy harmony at 2.33 always gets me):
Dear Avery, also from ‘The King is Dead’, shows Meloy’s softer side, smoothed again by Gillian Welch:
Colin Meloy also, unsurprisingly, writes a series of fantasy adventure books for children called ‘The Wildwood Chronicles: http://www.wildwoodchronicles.com/, illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis.
As you know the copyright in these videos belongs to the band.