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The Decemberists

Believe it or not, I don't usually sit around with my friends picking apart mid-19th century poetry. Archaic language like "the bosun calls upon the quay" kind of frightens me. Nor have I ever deconstructed tales of wayward sailors and chimney sweeps, searching for some way to connect their lives to my own. Yet that's exactly what I've found myself doing ever since I discovered the uniquely addictive sound of The Decemberists.

The five-piece Portland-based band tells musical stories in the baroque style, fusing rock and classical elements to achieve a majestic form of folk pop. Lead singer/guitarist Colin Meloy, who holds a degree in creative writing, writes all the lyrics- each tune an allegorical word play recounting human anecdotes and tragedies. Meloy takes you back to 1845 and croons the biographies of kings, gypsies, pirates and ladies, mainly cautionary life tales providing a refreshing change from music's typical themes of love and heartbreak. Think Robert Louis Stevenson, but with musical talent and a terrific backing band.

Therein lies the charm. What borders on pretentious on paper is actually delivered in a manner quite amusing and theatrical. Meloy's nasal pronounced vocals deliver him as your trusty narrator, and he enunciates every word clearly so as to get his point across. The band consists variably of drums, upright bass, accordion, organ, pedal steel guitar and theremin. The musical elements make the sometimes somber topics accessible and often triumphant. Wouldn't you rather have an accordion accompanying, rather than simply reading: "You were a brickbat, a bowery tough/So rough they culled you from a cartoon/Pulled out of your pantaloons."? Sans the music, you feel like you're back in English Lit. Music onboard, you'll grab your sailor costume and march right along to the drumbeat. All told, the mix of Broadway musical and melodic pop are delivered with a whimsical style and a necessary touch of sincerity.

The Decemberists' own tale is happier than that of most of Meloy's characters (like Billy Liar, who "drifts to sleep with a moan and a weep...decked by a Japanese geisha with a garland of pearls." Poor Billy.) Our heroes formed the band in 2001, and last year saw two albums achieve a measure of success in the indie world. A re-issue of their debut on Kill Rock Stars, Castaways and Cutouts was well received and followed up in the fall by the critically lauded Her Majesty, The Decemberists. They've begun to develop a devout fan base and have drawn comparisons to indie rock superstars Belle and Sebastian and Neutral Milk Hotel, the latter due to uncanny similarities in the lead singers' voices.

So even if you have no idea what "Languor on divans/Dalliant and dainty!" means (C'mon, it's pretty obvious), don't let that stop you from checking out their Bottom of the Hill gig. The Decemberists' is a story worth beholding and a musical tale we're no doubt going to keep hearing. Besides, we won't tell if you smuggle in your pocket dictionary.