Clean and saber

The Decemberists find their own "Chinese Democracy" -- kinda. Plus: Cheech and Chong puff back, Youtube Live, and more
The Decemberists, in November

SONIC REDUCER All allusions to Guns 'N Roses much-contemplated, way-overthought, über-delayed ejaculation Chinese Democracy (Interscope) aside — is there such a thing as being too brainy or geeky to rock? Some might have pegged the cerebral, multi-syllable-slinging Decemberists as such: with its Brit-wave and Elephant 6 pop-literati influences, the band seemed to herald an aughtsy-totsy wave of archly smart indie pop (e.g., Arcade Fire) that drew from both stage-y American standards and college-radio playlists — theirs was less college rock than a college-educated rock. Add in the renown surrounding Decemberists' 2005 San Francisco show, which cut "Chimbley Sweep" with a light saber duel, and eventually touched off playful competition with Stephen Colbert, and you've gotta wonder, how nerdy can one band get?

Well, attribute it to roving minds and too much drink, according to ever-cogitating, multi-tasking band leader Colin Meloy, 34. "I try not to be totally static onstage," drawls the songwriter by phone from his Portland, Ore., home as his 2-year-old son freaks out. "Typically if I go see a rock show, I just want to see a rock show and have the songs speak for themselves. But we'll do gags, audience participation. Stuff born out of boredom and drunkenness."

Meloy and company's restive imaginations most recently spawned a series of three singles titled Always the Bridesmaid, composed of tunes recorded last March but which weren't quite right for the group's March 2009 Capitol album, The Hazards of Love. The first 12-inch included "Valerie Plame," a jubilant shout-out, bustling with feisty accordion and brass, to the all-too-exposed CIA operative. "I would be listing to the radio and making dinner and hearing about Valerie Plame and what struck me was how perfectly the cadence of her name was for a pop song," Meloy explains. "'Valerie' has been used in a lot of pop songs — there's something about the first stressed syllable in a three-syllable name and the cadence onward, and the beautiful punctuation of the last name. It was just screaming to have a pop song written around it."

The last single — with the prettily melancholic, banjo-bedecked "Record Year" and the wistful, acoustic guitar-glittered "Raincoat Song" — comes next month. "I think it might be the only thing we ever released in December," quips Meloy.

As for the long-awaited LP, which the combo will likely play in its entirety on tour next spring, Meloy describes it as an "experimental narrative" forged after listening to a lot of old folk songs as filtered through '60s-era British revivalists. "I noticed common elements were popping up and I thought it would be interesting to take those individual elements and throw them together in an extended song and see what sort of narrative it would create," he says.

"These days, to be a musician and to be constantly immersed in music, your outlook on music changes drastically," continues Meloy. "I find I rarely get the spine-tingling moments from music anymore. I think I'm jaded and immersed — you know how you work in a pizza place and get sick of pizza — and the spine-tingling moments are few and far between, but I find I'm rediscovering those moments in old folk songs.

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