Colin Meloy, lead singer/songwriter for Portland, OR's Decemberists takes a drag off his yellow American Spirit and places his right hand, cigarette between two fingers, on a bottle of Heineken backstage at the Black Cat in DC a few weeks ago. If you happened to be one of the 710 people there at the Decemberists' show, and if you happened to be backstage already, doing an interview with opening band Clearlake, you may have happened to bump into Colin after the Decemberists' amazing live performance of the 19-minute rock symphony, "The Tain." And, if — most importantly — you happened to ask if he had a few minutes to chat, then that conversation might have started with something like, "So what's the deal with 'The Tain?'"
But as it was, the conversation probably happened to have started with Colin offering you a Heineken. And after that you may have happened to ask about "The Tain." As Colin describes the new EP, out now on a small British label, was just something born out of a riff he wrote one day and just kind of kept adding to. It was recorded at the Hall of Justice in Seattle with Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla, no doubt a decision based on the relationship the two bands have developed from their records having sat next to each other in record store bins for years.
The CD ep is just a 19-minute single track; however, both in the live version you happened to see performed that night and in the recording you happened to hear later, like a symphony, there are five definitive "movements." The theme is laid out at the beginning with a authoritative acoustic guitar, and variations on the theme maneuver through the remaining seventeen minutes with moments that recall Led Zeppelin at one instant, pre-"Summer Teeth" Wilco the next. But don't worry, weary fan, they still sound a lot like Neutral Milk Hotel.
In the end, the EP is basically a weekend musical science experiment. It's easy to picture a band with such an eccentric pirate fetish taking a break in between reading Yeats and watching Mystery Science Theater to head into the studio and play around with a riff until it turns into something like this. Lucky for us, that band happens to be pretty good.
If you happened to talk to Colin for a little while longer, and if you happened to know the Portland area, there is little doubt that the conversation would turn from "The Tain" — which he seemed hesitant to glorify or take any real artistic credit for — and into the best bookstores and bike routes of Portland. But regardless of some disagreements between yourself and the Subaru-driving musician with a cat named Albert Brown, his band's newest EP is definitely worth picking up. But only if you happen to be the kind of person who happens to have the time to listen to songs that last 19 minutes.