REVIEW: The Decemberists: A Practical Handbook [2006] & Pendarvia [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: March 3rd, 2006 (USA)
Studio: Kill Rock Stars
Director(s): Jeff Feller

Written for BuffaBlog.

“Whiskey, weed, and fine cocaine”

It wasn’t until the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007 that I finally discovered indie-folk act The Decemberists. Yes, I was very late to the game. Already with three albums under their belt, the newest—The Crane Wife—captivated me completely. It’s sprawling, ambitious progressive folk stylings were right up my alley and I’ve not looked back since.

Snagging a solitary balcony ticket to the almost sold out show at the University at Buffalo that March, I watched one of the best live acts around. Singer/songwriter Colin Meloy belted out the anthems as his many bandmates played alongside. A great mix of old tunes and new, it was his literary joke about an eight-word sentence—Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.—that sealed the deal. Vowing to purchase the back catalog on Amazon as I walked out to the merch table, I found The Decemberists: A Practical Handbook beckoning me to take it home.

With artwork by usual Decemberists collaborator—and Meloy’s wife—Carson Ellis, the DVD includes the following:

Paris Before the War (6/10):
Directed by Aaron Stewart-Ahn, Paris Before the War is a 26-minute documentary of the band’s origins and recording process for their third album, Picaresque. Edited awkwardly with abrupt cuts to black and the use of titles that almost rush the pacing, the information shared is worth the time of any Decemberists fan if not already known. Beginning with frontman Colin Meloy explaining the end of his first band Tarkio and the origins of “My Mother was a Chinese Trapeze Artist”, it isn’t hard to understand this singer/songwriter is the group’s leader and nucleus.

Chris Funk (pedal steel), Jenny Conlee (accordian), Nate Query (upright bass), and Rachel Blumberg (drums) are all later introduced as they share stories describing how they came together. Tales of playing empty bars and hotel lobbies explain their modesty; their surprise at how fast success came proves their genuine thanks to all who listen.

The inclusion of band shot footage from inside the former Baptist church they recorded Picaresque in is welcome as the static interviews become a bit tedious and drab. Littered with toys, dolls, and even a swing set, the space embodies the fun atmosphere of the album and what the group has cultivated through their live show. As Meloy says, this process and subsequent tour allowed him to realize he could let “his geek flag fly”. It wasn’t about feigning hipster cool to win fans; it was about having fun and watching his audience do the same.

Funk is definitely the film’s highlight—and probably that of the entire DVD—as he mimes songs with a panda bear and exudes an overall goofy demeanor. We also see the quintet working as they record “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” live, hear Blumberg give her reasons for departing the band, are introduced to her replacement John Moen, and really find an appreciation for the light-hearted rapport they keep intact even today. I’m not saying The Decemberists aren’t serious about their careers, they simply remember their roots and have transformed their band into a second family.

Live at the Roseland Theater in Portland, OR (7/10):
Filmed on November 4, 2005, Live at the Roseland Theater in Portland, OR is rather subdued as the band plays through a collection of work without too much acknowledgement of the audience besides mentioning the robotic cameras flying around. Performed as part of their Picaresque tour, it’s unsurprising that over half the songs come from that album. Castaways and Cutouts does get some love with “Leslie Anne Levine” and “July, July!” while Her Majesty offers “The Soldiering Life”, “The Chimbley Sweep”, and “I Was Meant for the Stage”.

Besides Conlee throwing a tambourine like a Frisbee into the audience during “The Sporting Life”, the complete set up until their closer, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, is pretty straightforward. Meloy sings his heart out while Petra Haden oddly laughs as she violins like she’s telling jokes in her head. “The Infanta”, “We Both Go Down Together”, “The Engine Driver”, “Eli, The Barrow Boy”, and “16 Military Wives” round out the show with effective orchestration and an enjoyable mix of camera angles courtesy of director Jeff Feller.

Fake birds litter the stage, Meloy wears a red and white striped barber suit, and Funk channels his inner Robin Hood with a hat that appears to be made of felt. Until “Mariner’s”, though, that fun atmosphere is wasted on what could for all intents and purposes be a live album without the need of visuals. But then chaos arrives as Meloy engages both the live audience and us sitting at home with Moen rocking out on a solo drum and Funk using giant whale jaws to elicit screams from the crowd.

The encore only gets zanier as the band swaps instruments during an overlong rendition of “Chimbley” with guest guitarist Scott McCaughey before Meloy puts them and the audience to sleep in order to be woken up by the music’s refrain. A finale of discordant sounds grates on your ears after “Stage” and the band members throw whatever they can into the audience as souvenirs. It’s a stirring finish to a performance that took a while to get started. If nothing else, though, the music sounds great and serves as a nice escape while waiting for The Decemberists to come back to town.

Music Videos (8/10):
“The Tain” — Recorded in 2004, the 18-minute “The Tain” has always been one of my favorite pieces by the band. A precursor to the concept album Hazards of Love, the ethereal stop-motion animation from Andy Smetanka assists its epic take on the Irish tome Táin Bó Cúailnge with beautiful visuals. The use of colored crepe paper and silhouetted characters casting shadows from a backlit light source gives a magnificent texture and sumptuous mood. Split into four cantos, the story is told with title cards as war breaks out between Ulster and Connacht over a prized bull. Did I understand the story? Not really, but that doesn’t mean the visuals didn’t totally captivate as the music went through its tempo changes and gorgeously melodic progression.

“The Bachelor and the Bride” — Animated by Smetanka again, this tale is a dark one about the titular bachelor kidnapping, imprisoning, and forcing himself on the bride. The warm color hues with their ghostly glow add to the atmosphere of horror depicted as the dulcet tone of Meloy’s voice layers above.

“Sixteen Military Wives” — A hilarious video from Aaron Stewart-Ahn, the band plays secondary school students in Model UN as Meloy’s USA declares war on the world while creating sanctions and violating human rights. Feeling like a Wes Anderson work with its aesthetic and witty subtitles to delve deeper into character ambitions, I don’t see why every music video from the band wouldn’t include them showing their fantastic comedic chops.

“The Soldiering Life” — A touching piece from Dennis Fitzgerald that depicts the song’s lyrics perfectly, this video contains the band members in the midst of battle in World War I. Chris Funk has head bandaged as he stays beside a fallen comrade, a wonderful scene of two soldiers dancing stands out, and the feeling of comradery and family shines throughout.

“Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” — Nathaniel Freeman’s video matches the song tonally as the footage hitches from what appears missing frames. A more subdued brother to Collective Soul’s “The World I Know” video, we watch a businessman escaping into nature to build wooden slat and rope shelters. A bit abstract, its simplicity works but never makes the whole especially memorable.

Easter Eggs:
By clicking the plane on the main menu, you will be able to watch sixteen short vignettes. They span the gamut of cautionary neck-beard tales from Funk, Meloy’s raw vocals from “Eli, the Barrow Boy”, the story of a Rock and Roll Wookie, Meloy acoustically covering Joanna Newsom’s “Bridges and Balloons”, and footage of the band putting on a school play rendition of their songs.

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 30 minutes | Release Date: January 17th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: EMI-Capitol Special Markets
Director(s): Aaron Rose

From this ambitious Picaresque recording session, The Decemberists evolved into the band that crafted both The Crane Wife and concept album Hazards of Love afterwards. My two favorites of their discography, I’m happy to have been able to see both tours come through Buffalo, NY. There are few experiences quite like watching a band play an entire album front to back without stop and then come back onstage to play the hits afterwards like they did with Hazards in 2009.

A gruelingly complex album that utterly captivated audiences, it’s not surprising to see them go back to a more radio-friendly collection of music with The King is Dead. Another fantastic album, it by no means lacks in any way. Released in a special edition hardcover book of photos and Ellis drawings, the music is also accompanied by a 30-minute documentary about its own recording process called Pendarvia.

The band seems to concur with me about its scope as Conlee expresses how much fun it was to be a band again. She quickly bolsters that statement by saying it’s not like they weren’t a band on the last two records, but that it was nice to take the seriousness out of the process. Funk agrees, happy to not be enclosed by glass in a studio, and Meloy speaks to his writing more of an Americana-based record this time around. It is their ‘barn record’ after all, bringing the band back to its rural, folk roots yet still showing how even ‘simple songs’ can be deceivably complex.

Named Pendarvia to coincide with the Oregon farm they used as a studio, Scott and Sherry Pendarvis are shown in the film as very happy to have artists using their space to create. Funk jokes about it being a “fourth generation farm that grows nothing but good vibes”, yet there is a lot of truth to that. Weeds are shorn to feed the soil and there appears to be a great symbiosis at work. A lot of that goes into the album too, I think. Set up in the large space of the barn with only gray baffles separating them, the sound of rain and hail backs the vocals as everything congeals together to enhance rather than hinder.

Charming anecdotes about producer Tucker Martine clapping his hands throughout the space to discover its strengths, Query’s disappointment in his electric bass samples causing the band to agree he shouldn’t play upright this time around, and Conlee explaining the excitement of playing full-length takes where energy trumps perfection are a joy. Director Aaron Rose has really captured the spirit and ambiance by transforming raw takes into completed songs and showing a plethora of gorgeous Oregon expanse. Equally stunning aesthetically in photograph stills from Autumn de Wilde’s Impossible Project’s 2,500 Polaroids, the double exposures of bandmates, horses, and greenery in an old-timey tint are perfect.

Devoid of the origin information of Paris Before the War, Pendarvia is allowed to exist as a specific document on The King is Dead alone. Moen admits his love for live recording, Meloy shares how all his music has been influenced by REM, and Funk explains being star-struck playing with that band’s Peter Buck. The Decemberists are a band that ‘gets it’ and seem as though they’ll never devolve into one working for money rather than joy. To see every member genuinely happy and creatively invested in a project almost a decade after forming is inspiring. The fact they seem to get better every album is simply a gift to us, the listeners.

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