|image via Wikipedia|
Reluctant Decemberists fan that I am, I was cautiously optimistic to learn that they had a new album coming out this month. What with the new Iron & Wine album, entitled Kiss Each Other Clean¸ coming out a week later (on the 25th), January is shaping up to be a promising start to what will hopefully be another Good Year for Music, as bloggers and critics alike seem to agree 2010 was. I certainly thought so, but those of you who saw my year-end list may have noted the conspicuous absence of all things Kanye, Sufjan, Beach, Vampire, and Arcade.
Now, it appears I was the only person who liked the Decemberists’ 2009 offering, The Hazards of Love, and I suppose you might chalk that up to a combination of my appreciation of folksy concept albums à la Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and my unwavering devotion to Shara Worden. When I saw the Decemberists in concert in June of 2009, they played the whole of their opus, much to the chagrin of some members of the audience, my girlfriend Susanne included, before moving on to more crowd-pleasing hits after the interval, by which point Susanne had gone home, citing a headache but urging me to stay till the end. Which, I confess, I did, and was thus treated to a fantastic cover of Heart’s guitar hero epic “Crazy on You”, with Shara and Becky Stark sharing vocal duties and just generally kicking arse. After another break, the Decemberists returned, this time with none other than Peter Buck in tow, who joined them for a cover of “Begin the Begin”. Underwhelming, on the whole, methought—although Buck’s presence on stage was not nearly as weirdly superfluous as James Iha’s had been at that Serena Maneesh concert in Green Point a few years ago, but that’s a different story—but perhaps it just didn’t bear comparison with the fireworks that had gone immediately before.
More generally, however, it occurs to me that I’ve never spared Peter Buck a second thought, really, certainly not as a quote-unquote “great guitarist” whose distinctive style or sound were to be admired and emulated. But I also realise that I’m probably doing the man a grave injustice by saying so. Nevertheless, I couldn’t see what his presence on stage that night really added to the music. Now that I’ve heard the Decemberists’ new single, “Down by the Water”, however, I’m beginning to see how I might re-evaluate his contribution. Buck plays guitar and mandolin on a number of songs on the new album, which, says Meloy, started out as a flat-out tribute to R.E.M.
Even if he hadn’t said that, though, it would soon have been clear enough, because “Down by the Water” is, when it comes down to it, an R.E.M. song. The first line of the pre-chorus, “The season rubs me wrong” is pure Meloy in its phrasing, but after that we’re firmly in R.E.M.-land, and, as if to cap it all off, Buck [edit: or maybe it’s Chris Funk; apparently Buck plays 12-string on this track] adds little arpeggio lifted verbatim from “The One I Love”. As soon as Meloy and Gillian Welch have sung “down by the old main drag” and that arpeggio has rung out a couple of times, I always half-expect Michael Stipe to yell “Fire!”
See what I mean?
So, is this a factor of Buck’s distinctive guitar playing, or simply due to the fact that Meloy & co. were writing an R.E.M. parody/tribute?
Answers on a postcard, please.