by carl wilson

Storytellers, Not Made for VH1


Today in The Globe & Mail, with a big colourful photo, the following piece on indie rock narrative and its discontents. Along the way, I discovered that thanks to their new album Picaresque I don't totally, completely hate the Decemberists (above) - just 75 per cent of the time - and that it's very, very difficult to put into words the sound of the voice of Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces. I think I half-flubbed it - I wish I'd added to "BBC newsreader" an equal share of PJ Harvey. Plus a dash of a girl of 6 in a school play. And maybe a little eye of newt. Anyone have a more apt, quick, intelligible description? Otherwise, I think this is a worthwhile overview of the paradoxes of layering prosodic ambitions over music - part of the ongoing agonizing over the literary-musical intersection that seems to be the fate of this blog, and I think of anybody who's disproportionately a "lyrics person."

Telling stories with a twist
(Decemberists, Fiery Furnaces, Destroyer)

The Globe & Mail
Friday, Oct 7, 2005

Imagine Mick Jagger babysitting your kids. Can you see him paging through a picture book to lull them to sleep? No, he'd jump up halfway in, jutting his hips around with gasps and shouts, riffing off the words but never saying how the story ends, keeping them up all night long. What did you expect, hiring Mick Jagger?

Our story-obsessed culture is forever finding new media to recycle the four or five basic plots (hero comes of age, stranger arrives, prisoner escapes, girls go wild . . .). But music has been an exception. [ ... continues ... ]

Modern pop lyrics don't need stories - they're a soundtrack, setting a mood, and too much plot would only distract from the wooing, dancing and posing that have set the pop agenda since the invention of adolescence, somewhere around the age of the flappers. Tale-telling is fine for kids and old banjo players, but when rock 'n' roll goes narrative you get heavy-metal concept albums about dwarfs and hobbits.

Now a new generation is foolhardy enough to take that risk. Groups such as the Decemberists, the Fiery Furnaces and Destroyer, all appearing in Toronto this week, beguile their listeners with at least a whiff of the campfire. Perhaps they've been swayed by the more narrative culture of hip-hop, or maybe they're just creative-writing students gone astray.

That description certainly suits Colin Meloy, the grad student turned singer-songwriter who leads a boatload of musicians in Portland, Ore.'s, the Decemberists. Sounding rather like the Smiths without the cool quizzical distance or the Pogues gone grimly on the wagon, the Decemberists spin yarns in archaic modes, about pirates, chimney sweeps, colonials and scullery maids.

They come off too frequently like coy prep-school-pageant theatricals, especially when Meloy lapses into his fake British accent. Yet they've gathered a following who appreciate the band's strengths -- his endearingly broken-nosed vocals; the occasional dirty jokes; unusual instruments such as hurdy-gurdy and the zesty violin of Petra Haden; and occasionally a song such as the horn-drenched Sixteen Military Wives (on this summer's new, third album, Picaresque), in which quill-pen affectations are swapped for a fresher tone and being "rollicking" stops seeming like a poor substitute for being able to rock.

Still, for a shot of piracy and sea shanties, I'd much rather hear the warped revisions of the Fiery Furnaces (New York sibling duo Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger), in which you could be bobbing in a galleon of white-slave traders one moment and the next be pulling up to a TCBY for a frozen yogurt.

Their use of archetypes seems less a cutesy exercise and much more the delirium of dreams, in which the past is never buried, always clattering up against the everyday. They chase curlicues of imagery or melody with an insouciant disregard for narrative consistency. As with the Decemberists, there's some childhood regression involved, but the Friedbergers' version is more naked and freewheeling rather than fetishistic. What's more, they've got Eleanor's crisp charisma (she sounds like a BBC newsreader, but looks like Patti Smith) and Matthew's diamond-edged, perpetually mobile musical arrangements, with slatherings of brothel organ and White Stripes-ish blues guitar.

They started the band only a couple of years ago, in their late 20s, but they have been making up for lost time. Their coming fourth album is a set of duets with their 80-year-old, glee-club-singer grandmother, forging her personal reminiscences into Fiery Furnaces rock.

After all, if your songs are going to tell stories beyond boy meets girl, best make sure they're not predictable ones.

That's the very essence of Destroyer, the ever-changing vehicle for Vancouver's Dan Bejar, also a part-time member of that city's "supergroup," the New Pornographers. (To the delight of fans, he is touring with them for the first time this fall.) Bejar's songs feature the makings of storytelling -- character names fly by amid battleground and bedroom settings -- but only the makings. There's precious little follow-through; each verse, even successive lines, seem harvested from a hodgepodge of unrelated plots.

Such tricks may frustrate anyone in search of a coherent account of what a given song is "about," but to me Bejar's the most successful of this wave of singing storytellers. Over music equally profligate in its influences (a song might sound like Leonard Cohen, the Buzzcocks splinter group Magazine or an outtake from a Sondheim musical), he writes for an audience already overstuffed with story, who require only the barest allusions to start plot points unreeling in our heads.

The process generates comic and disturbing juxtapositions that actually recall the old-time folk ballads, themselves cobbled together from varied sources: An Appalachian tune might jump from the bit about the murdered maiden to the verse about the elusive cuckoo - haphazard leaps that yielded new poetry.

Every piece of music has a beginning, middle and end, after all, taking it from stasis to agitation to resolution. Our ears don't need a second story to interfere - only a lattice of language to tether music's near-alien beauty to the workings of the human mind.

Destroyer with the New Pornographers and Immaculate Machine, Sunday at the Phoenix, $22.50; The Fiery Furnaces with Apostle of Hustle, Monday at Lee's Palace, $16.50; the Decemberists with Cass McCombs, Thursday at the Phoenix, $17.50.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 07 at 10:48 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)



OH, and thanks for the link.

Posted by j. on October 15, 2005 4:05 PM



It is true, Destroyer probably doesn't compare to L&O; *anything* (although it does make for a tidy analogy, if one is trying to make a 3-tet of comparisons). The Kingdom is sort of like David Lynch's ER. And it has the added bonus of a Denmark-hating Swedish chief internist and a tuxedoed Lars von Trier introducing (or wrapping up -- can't remember) each episode. At any rate, listening to Destroyer, for me, is like finding little bites of literary marrow encased in a delectable musical puff pastry.

Posted by jennifer on October 15, 2005 3:46 PM



Ha! But I'd dispute Destroyer as L&O; Classic (or anything Classic) - it's closer to some Burroughsed-up version of The Wire or the original Cracker (UK), maybe: Storyline continues through the whole series and particularly through each season, but it has more to do with character dynamics than with plot. Even if in a way the character development takes place ENTIRELY off-screen. In fact, I haven't seen Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom series, but I'd imagine that's closer. Or, as I've argued at length elsewhere, any 1960s Godard film, especially Les Carabiniers or Alphaville. See;=3142.

Posted by zoilus on October 14, 2005 1:35 PM



Hm. I think that Decemberists: Fiery Furnaces: Destroyer AS Law & Order Criminal Intent: Law & Order SVU: Law & Order "Classic". CI -- lots of onscreen character development; recurring villains; continuing storylines. SVU -- some offscreen character development; periodic recurring storylines. "Classic" -- storyline entirely self-contained within single episode.

Posted by jennifer on October 14, 2005 8:21 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson