Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, the first Thursday of every new month on KEXP.org.
There was a period of time where I followed the Portland-based illustrator on Flickr; when her artwork adorned the album covers of the Decemberists. The band’s frontman and principal songwriter Colin Meloy was – and is – her romantic and domestic partner, but that's a little beside the point. Ellis’ artwork has always been the ideal visual accompaniment for the Decemberists’ songs: elegant but slightly off-center, storybook archaic.
Anyway, Ellis would post these drawings; some fully-realized renderings of her imagined world, others mere sketches. I don’t know what drew me to her drawing of Decemberists member Nate Query’s upright bass, just that it caught my eye. The ink was set into my skin during a solo trip to Portland at some random tattoo shop on SE Hawthorne, hours before an event that would unwittingly become the launchpad from where I would leave the Decemberists and their songs about chimney sweeps behind: Seeing Thee Oh Sees live for the first time.
That’s a story I may tell at length someday, but let’s stay on task.
Because nearly every single person who sees a tattoo feels entitled to its meaning, I felt the need to offer context, even if it was artfully fabricated most of the time. At first, I would offer the truth, stating my love for Carson Ellis’ and the Decemberists’ work. Later, the pretentious explanation of “the cross-section between art and music.” When I started listening to free jazz in the midst of my mid-30s, it became “some jazz thing.”
People would invariably — fucking invariably — ask me if I played the instrument. After the first 1,200 queries from the other side of the checkstand at the QFC where I worked, I asked myself and the heavens, why didn’t I just get the tattoo of the 12-string guitar? I have some facility as an acoustic guitar player, even if it was just a short-lived, experimental, bedroom singer/songwriter project. A small segment of my recorded works includes reverb-drenched covers of two Decemberists songs, including a particularly inspired rendition of “From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)”.
I was either three years too early or three years too late from making it as an indie-folk cult favorite C’est la vie.
After which he was given counsel by his advisor to gain some life experience before pursuing graduate school. In turn, he moved to Portland, became aghast at the dreck being peddled at open mics, and started writing sea shanties. Not too long after, he found musicians to help flesh out his songs and named the band (with tongue fully in cheek) after a failed 19th Century Russian uprising. The Decemberists were born.
Meloy’s songs were odd and bursting with melody, reportedly inspired by Dylan Thomas and Robyn Hitchcock at a time; whereas I was miles off from even catching a whiff of those names.
Stereotypes of the Decemberists’ music had yet to become fully formed; at this point, Meloy’s songwriting was fresh enough to be regarded favorably. Perhaps the biggest misperception of the band was that theirs was a ship drowning in whimsy. Because when you take some real consideration of the songs on their full-length debut Castaways and Cutouts, the Decemberists were fucking dark.
The album’s two best songs (at least in my personal opinion) are steeped in old-world cruelty and sexual violence. “A Cautionary Song” is a polka-tinged waltz about a sex worker in a seaside town who goes to great lengths to feed her children. The epic “Odalisque” is set during the Holocaust; rife with malnourished children being pelted with sacks of marbles, Jewish people being blasted with rock salt, and women being sexually assaulted. Pretty bleak stuff for a band typecast as singing cute songs about petticoats being tugged and camels being ridden.
Without getting too far into it, I’ve read partway through enough think pieces to know this is a side of the Decemberists that has been endlessly relitigated over the past two decades. There are plenty of people who vehemently feel as though art has a duty to be socially responsible. I believe it does not. There are people who advocate for all art reflecting how the world should be and people (like myself) who think art should reflect how the world is. I believe people have a responsibility to determine right from wrong for themselves, and anyone who is allowing art and entertainment to do it for them should teach themselves a more sophisticated stance on morality.
I have a lot of opinions about the dwindling importance of critical thought in American society (thanks, Twitter!) leads many people to believe any artistic depiction of true evil is an admission of condoning it or having fantasies about it, but I’ll save most of these opinions for when I retire to the weed farm and sign up for a Substack account.
Now I’m all riled up over how people regard art about the dark side of humanity when I just wanted to write about stevedores and hurdy-gurdys!
For my personal tastes, Her Majesty the Decemberists holds the top spot. It’s recorded better than Castaways but also somehow looser; it’s richer with melody and songwriting personality. “Shanty for the Arethusa” carries the sinister feel of their debut full-length’s best work, while “The Bachelor and the Bride” possesses the melancholy-tinged drama; same for the unexpectedly beautiful “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground.”
Her Majesty the Decemberists established Meloy as a songwriter with depth, personality, and humor — and is arguably the piece of the Decemberists’ lengthy catalog where all three converge for a perfect storm. “Billy Liar” and “The Chimbley Sweep,” the former led by the depiction of a peeping tom and the latter self-explanatory, carry a fun, underlying horniness. Same with the lush “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” snickering at the demure ladies, “I can see your undies.” The song is part of a long lineage of Northwest indie artists writing about their love-hate relationships or outright distaste of L.A. (see also: Death Cab for Cutie; Smith, Elliott), Meloy singing of the Pacific Ocean “gargling vomit on the shore,” “the smell of burnt cocaine, the dolor and decay,” and finally bellowing, “How I abhor this place!”
Meloy also writes with a lot of heart, as “A Soldiering Life” is not swaddled in irony or obscured by cruelty; it’s a beautiful love story forged in the explosions of war. It’s immediately followed by “Red Right Ankle,” the closest to a straightforward love song the band had attempted on their first two albums. The penultimate track “I Was Meant for the Stage” is a seven-minute epic that serves as a mission statement of sorts for the Decemberists. The notions of destiny, the parents worried about the poverty that inevitably comes with artistic dreams, and the prominent use of the word “foyer.” The emotional high. The noisy breakdown to end the song. The love for theater which inspired the ire of their fair share of detractors.
And then following up the climax of “I Was Meant for the Stage” with the soulful saloon jaunt “As I Rise”? Magnificent.
Oil lamps, wind-up clocks, and hand-sewn mattresses adorned their house. The writer’s husband rode a unicycle in a photo for the essay and they both dressed like the kind of people Oscar Wilde made fun of. The article quickly reached infamy as one of the most ridiculed piece of writing of that year, and maybe even that entire decade.
I had two immediate thoughts: 1) Period accuracy notwithstanding, I doubt this couple is friends with any Black people. 2) This is the real-life version of how the Decemberists have been stereotyped.
By the time Picaresque came out in 2005, a swell of backlash emerged, the so-called community theater aesthetic of the band seen as an affront to the sort of provocative and challenging music indie rock was previously known for championing. Never mind the fact that the band was extremely provocative and challenging in their own way; people tend to only look at the surface of things. Never mind that one fact I always bring up about indie music by and large no longer being provocative and challenging.
The album is, for better or worse, the Decemberists’ calling card; full of their most focused musicianship and that one song that became a political anthem of sorts for a very specific type of indie kid. Perhaps a very similar type of indie kid for whom “The Sporting Life” conjures some very unfavorable memories. Picaresque is filled with songs about spies (“The Bagman’s Gambit”), more songs about ghosts (“Eli the Barrowboy”), and an incredibly fun and ludicrously ambitious polka epic titled “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.”
Not an eyebrow was raised when Death Cab signed to Atlantic; it made perfect sense. It seemed a little peculiar when Modest Mouse signed with Epic at the tail end of the ‘90s, but when The Moon and Antarctica was released to rapturous critical acclaim at the turn of the century — and the band scored an honest-to-god hit single four years later with “Float On” — people got used to it.
But the Decemberists? The band with an accordionist featured prominently within their ranks? The band with a song dedicated to Myla Goldberg and multiple songs about ghost babies and 19th Century pickpockets? When they jumped from beloved indie Kill Rock Stars to major Capitol Records, for as great a band as the Decemberists were, people still asked what gives? Was the major label system that hard up for critical intrigue? Was Capitol trying to corner the market of people who check CDs out from libraries?
Speculation aside, the band’s major-label debut, The Crane Wife, was typically ambitious and finally featured the budget to match. It’s not exactly a concept album but is titled after and centered around a Japanese folk tale of the same name (well, when it’s translated to English), and the three parts of its title track make up for about a quarter of the album’s running time.
The Crane Wife is appropriately ornate and expands the musical strengths of the band, as they settle comfortably into prog on the three-song suite “The Island” and the heavy(-ish) “When the War Came.” Album closer “Sons and Daughters” features the band singing in rounds and feels like the sunrise conclusion of a hard-earned quest. As a songwriter, Meloy’s narratives became even richer — as featured on murderous starcrossed lovers’ jaunt “O Valencia!,” heist banger “The Perfect Crime #2,” and “Shankill Butchers,” like “A Cautionary Song” without the need for a trigger warning.
I saw the band at the Paramount Theatre on the tour run for The Crane Wife. They were at the height of their powers: majestic, luxurious musicianship; incredible stage presence (and stage design!); a full rebuke of any chatter that the Decemberists were too insular and quirky to deserve major label backing.
I sold my argyle sweater to Plato’s Closet and moved on. I embraced my childhood love for TOO-LOUD GUITARS and found solace in garage punk. I became a regular weed smoker and ignited (pun intended) a curiosity and affinity for psych music. I finally unlocked the key to understanding Sonic Youth. I’d always had a deep love for rap, but the increasing accessibility of music put a spotlight on even its hardest-to-reach corners. As the saying goes, nothing gold can stay.
And truth be told, I needed some sort of outward projection of the things I felt inside. I didn’t want my anger, my defiance, my violence, my acidic skepticism of authority and establishment crouched in bookish irony. The way I wanted — needed — to present myself as a person required more jagged edges. I can’t say I even outgrew the Decemberists; I just outgrew being the type of person who listened to the Decemberists.
Years later, when the Decemberists’ unlikely success story culminated with them topping the Billboard album charts with The King is Dead, I smiled. But I didn’t listen to the album.
For the decade-plus after my Decemberists fandom ended, they floated in and out of my memory; like an ex or a close friend from whom I’d drifted apart. I described my love for them in similar terms: It was a different time. I was a different person back then.
It was only in a sprawling interview with Kill Rock Stars principals, past and present, Slim Moon and Dr. Portia Sabin, for an upcoming feature on this site that unlocked my willingness to share my love for the Decemberists. I showed them the Carson Ellis tattoo, they shared the excitement of having the band on the label, and we enthusiastically opined that they really do have jams.
And that’s what I want you, dear reader, to get out of this lengthy journey of fandom. Of loving a band, falling out of love with them, and remembering exactly why you loved them in the first place. I fell in love with the music of the Decemberists because they indeed have jams.
“Listen kid, rock is dead! There’s a reason why they call it the music business. Hit me up when you got something!”
King Youngblood makes huge, earnest rock music at a time where huge, earnest rock music doesn’t really sell like that anymore. And still, they thrive. Led by Cameron Lavi-Jones, the son of a former Black Panther Party member/current community radio programmer, the alt-rock quartet has garnered love from AfroPunk and Alternative Press and has scored a coveted opening slot for Pearl Jam and an even more coveted pre-game performance at a Seattle Seahawks home game.
Co-written by Eric Lilavois, King Youngblood’s latest single “A Thousand Songs” is a reminder to keep the good times close to your heart, no matter how painful adversity can get. Lavi-Jones sings of how fast life can come at you and struggling to find the words to articulate the speed. The video (directed by Lara Lavi, shot by Eric Luck, and edited by Tyler Nelson) is a snapshot of life in the band as they travel through various hallmark Seattle music scene locales (Central Saloon, Neumos, London Bridge Studios, and more) as they encounter relatable struggles (like van trouble) and the amazing highs of performing in front of enthusiastic fans and listening to playback at the studio.
At their core, King Youngblood makes music that makes you feel good. “A Thousand Songs” and its video is heartwarming evidence.
After dropping one of 2019’s best local albums in DEGRESSIVE, Dark Smith faded into the shadows for a while; an act absolutely befitting their sound and aesthetic. After a three-year period where frontperson and restless creative Di Danny Di (formerly known as Danny Denial) released a thrillingly unsettling solo album, wrote and directed the very inspired dystopian web series BAZZOOKA, and disappeared without a trace, sadfluid goth heroes Dark Smith have returned!
Not only is the quartet playing a spate of shows in June — including Seattle Pride this Saturday, June 4th, So Dreamy Music Festival this Sunday, June 5th, and Tuesday, June 8th with Throwaway Style featured artists Rachaels Children — but they’re also re-releasing and re-packaging DEGRESSIVE as DEGRE22IVE, adding three songs to the release (which are all bangers). “Too Many Secrets” is a grungy, acoustic guitar-driven track augmented by the field recordings of news reports of living in a rapidly deteriorating world; new single “Feel Nothing” finds the band charting course into near-anthemic territory; and “Degressive” is as dark and thunderous as anything the band has previously recorded.
Along with news of new music from Dark Smith, I am absolutely thrilled to announce the return of BAZZOOKAFEST. Built on the heels of the aforementioned web series, BAZZOOKAFEST erupted in Beacon Hill’s Jefferson Park last year as a forum for musicians and filmmakers of color to have a spotlight in a city all too used to marginalizing or tokenizing us in their show lineups and festival bills. This year’s event is going to be a two-day affair, with BAZZOOKAFEST on August 20th and BAZOOKA BALL & MARKET on the next night, August 21st. As is BAZZOOKAFEST’s M.O., the music festival, ball, and market will center Black and Brown performers, artists, and businesses. Here’s a little more information on the extravaganza:
Back for its second year as a two-day event, BAZZOOKAFEST is a space cultivated by and for BIPOC artists, creators, entrepreneurs and business owners in Seattle to connect, celebrate strength in solidarity, and promote community access in the wake of disparity for black and brown artists following COVID-19. The all-day festival employs musicians of color to perform live, filmmakers of color to have their work screened, and black-owned businesses to platform and sell their work on their terms. Last year, The Stranger “BAZZOOKAFEST is more than a festival, it’s a vibe” and South Seattle Emerald called it a “blueprint for more events and platforms that center BIPOC artists on their terms.” This year, it will be even bigger and better, with a full-scale kiki ball curated by festival partners BeautyBoiz and The Royal House of Noir.
Ever since Tacoma’s premier fight-rap stalwarts ILLFIGHTYOU broke up last year, I’ve gotta admit the scene’s been feeling a little tame. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t still been getting busy. UGLYFRANK abruptly departed from the group but just put out a great single called “Poison.” KHRIS P has been putting out singles on Soundcloud damn near every week since the top of the year. To wit, P and GLENN not only stole the show on Travis Thompson’s major label debut LP BLVD BOY (on arguably the album’s best song “Odd Jobs”), but they’re gearing up to release GIMME INDIE ROCK, a short set of raps culled over indie loops provided by Washington State rap scene advocate (and former Seattle Times music reporter) Andrew Matson.
GIMME INDIE ROCK is a brisk and addictive listen, with a clear thematic hook to match. The notion of sample snitching is an unspoken hip-hop taboo, but what are the former members of ILLFIGHTYOU if not completely willing to gleefully flout social norms? Over beats culled from bands like Soul Glo, Wet Leg, Big Thief, Snail Mail, and more, KHRIS and GLENN knock out tweakers stealing catalytic converters, “going remedial,” getting main events in backyard boxing matches, smoking the big gas (of course), and turning down Nardwuar interviews. I’d like to think Khris is not shouting out Martin McFly when he references Back to the Future, but notable music journalist Martin Douglas. Make sure you get it right when you’re annotating these lyrics on Genius.
GIMME INDIE ROCK drops June 10th. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Hey man, I’m no narc. I still have bad memories of a certain promoter that shall remain nameless who ruined a secret No Age show at The Smell in 2010, which ended up having to be canceled after pressure from Hollywood Bowl and Sub Pop after they spilled the beans on Twitter. But am I ratting ALMA’s forthcoming secret show series out when they’ve gone through the trouble to make a graphic for it?
Look man, I’ve been a journalist for a long time. I know people in high places. And I was recently told by one of those people that ALMA will be putting on shows where the headliner will remain unannounced and you’ll just have to trust that they’ve got some big names. Their first show is on June 25th (doors at 6 pm, show starts at 7), and I don’t even know if I should or am allowed to tell you this, but it features a group that has definitely been covered somewhere in the five-year history of Throwaway Style. But that’s all I can tell you! Buy your tickets now and thank me later.
The Crane Wife track finds inspiration in a real group of killers active in the late '70s/early '80s in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Colin Meloy of The Decemberists talks to KEXP about expanding their sound on the new album, I'll Be Your Girl, favorite synth bands, and how "we're all watching the ballistic missile coming in and the only thing we can do is keep playing through."