Knitting Factory Presents
Travelers' Rest: Saturday
WHAT A TERRIBLE WORLD, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL WORLD
“In some ways, this album was four years in the making,” says Colin Meloy, frontman and primary songwriter of the Decemberists. “We were on hiatus, so we had all the time we could want, no schedule or tour, no expectations.”
With the ability to work at their own pace, the resulting record, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, is the band’s most varied and dynamic work, both musically and emotionally. Since their earliest recordings more than a decade ago, the Decemberists have always been known for their sense of scope and daring—from “The Tain,” an eighteen-and-a-half minute 2004 single based on an Irish myth to their last two ambitious, thematic albums, The Hazards of Love and The King is Dead. This time, though, Meloy explains that they took a different approach: “Let’s make sure the songs are good, and eventually the record will present itself.”
The Decemberists—Meloy, Chris Funk (guitars), Jenny Conlee (keyboards),Nate Query (bass), and John Moen (drums)—had announced that they would be taking a break when their touring cycle finished following the release of 2011’sThe King is Dead. Meloy wanted to spend time with his family and work on the children’s book series that became the acclaimed, best-selling Wildwood trilogy. To be sure, they had reached a new peak in their career: King entered the Billboard album charts at Number One, and the track “Down by the Water” was nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Rock Song” category.
Even during the hiatus, the group remained visible: they released an EP of outtakes from the album titled Long Live the King; contributed the song “One Engine” to the Hunger Games soundtrack; and put out We All Raise Our Voices to the Air, a live album documenting their ferocious intensity on stage. They even had the honor of appearing in animated form on The Simpsons, and performed on the season six finale of Parks and Recreation.
Mostly, however, Meloy was concentrating on the Wildwood series—the 1,500-page saga of two seventh-graders who are drawn into a hidden, magical forest, illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis. So when the band reassembled in May 2013,the plan wasn’t to make an album in their usual way.“Typically we book four or five weeks in the studio and bang out the whole record,” says Meloy. “This time, we started by just booking three days, and didn’t know what we would record. There was no direction or focus; we wanted to just see what would come out. We recorded ‘Lake Song’ on the first day, live, and then two more songs in those three days. And the spirit of that session informed everything that came after.”
They reconvened in the fall and added some more songs. Gradually, over the course of a year and a half, the album came into focus. What was initially apparent was a fuller, richer sound. “There was a grandiosity to the songs indifferent ways,” says Meloy, citing Leonard Cohen’s 1977 collaboration with Phil Spector, Death of a Ladies’ Man, as a reference point. “We were layering textures, adding strings and dedicated backing vocals—the early songs created the peaks of the record, and that started to dictate the overall tone and tenor.”
The first batch of songs, Meloy notes, represented the more personal side of his songwriting, a change from the strong narrative thrust that characterized much of the Decemberists’ work. “Writing books as this raw, fantastic narrator has been the outlet for that part of my brain,” he says. “Having a family, having kids, having this career, getting older—all of these things have made me look more inward. So some of these songs are among the more intimately personal songs I’ve ever written.
”Perhaps most notable is “12-17-12,” a song named for, and inspired by, the date that President Obama addressed the nation following the Newtown school shootings, and read the names of the victims. “I watched that speech and was profoundly moved,” says Meloy. “I was hit by a sense of helplessness, but also the message of ‘Hold your family close,’ and this was my way of marking that for myself.” This bewildering, conflicted feeling came out in a phrase near the end of the song—“what a terrible world, what a beautiful world”—that gave the album its title.
As the sessions continued, other elements of the writing and the sound surfaced and a more rounded picture emerged. “As soon as I finished the books, I immediately started writing more narrative songs,” Meloy says. “‘Cavalry Captain,’ ‘Carolina Low,’ those all started coming out. But there was a more subtle voice coming in; I wanted moments of levity, a little tongue-in-cheek. Also, we figured out that the big, pop sound we were making would also make the quieter moments more still, create more dynamic peaks and valleys.”
Without a deadline, the Decemberists were also able to explore every song to completion. “Usually you have to let some songs slide because of time constraints,” Meloy says, “but nothing was relegated to the b-side pile, everything was given a fair shake. Which is a blessing and a curse—we ended up with 18songs, and each had champions and detractors. There were a multitude of albums you could potentially make—somber, over-the-top pop, folk—and I think every band member would have created a different record.”
Ultimately, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World found its final form, a distillation of the best things about this remarkable band. A new way of working led to a renewed excitement about the next chapter for the Decemberists. “I’ve never lived with a record for so long,” says Colin Meloy, “documenting my shifts and changes as a songwriter, with a real sense of time passing. And there’s something very freeing about working on music with absolutely no agenda, and just letting the songs become themselves.”
It wasn't that long ago that the members of Seattle's The Head and the Heart were busking on street corners, strumming their acoustic guitars, stomping their feet and singing in harmony as they attempted to attract the attention of passersby. That unbridled energy informed their earliest original material, which was honed in local clubs before eventually being captured on the band's 2011 debut album for hometown label Sub Pop.
Then, something unexpected happened. That music began to reach audiences all over the United States and the rest of the world, and The Head and the Heart went from playing open mic nights to selling out headlining shows in prestigious venues. The album became one of Sub Pop's best-selling debut releases in years. And slowly but surely, ideas began to form for the band's second album, imbued with the experiences of traveling the world and cultivating a listenership with a deep connection to the music.
"There is a certain level of confidence gained from having such an amazing fan base," says group member Jonathan Russell. "You start to trust yourself more. When we were busking, we were filling so much space to keep the listener from walking away. Now we are in a very different situation." Adds group member Josiah Johnson, "We wanted to write songs that felt bigger, and didn't need to be so frantic. I think for the most part we wanted to record an album that sounds like the way we play now."
Indeed, The Head and the Heart's new release, Let's Be Still, is a snapshot of a band that didn't exist just four short years ago. Virginia native Russell and California transplant Johnson formed the core songwriting partnership, which was rounded out by drummer Tyler Williams, keyboardist Kenny Hensley, vocalist/violinist Charity Rose Thielen and bassist Chris Zasche, who'd met Russell and Johnson while tending bar at an open mic they frequented. The nascent group dove headfirst into writing, recording and performing, and even moved into the same house to ensure that inspiration could strike at any moment.
"The first record was very thematic. It just had to do with all of us being together and writing songs, and leaving home to come to Seattle," says Thielen. "I honestly don't know if there is a theme this time around. There are things that stick out, like the idea of going from busking to becoming a full-on band and touring like crazy." Adds Williams, "Before we started recording, I wondered, 'What if this doesn't work? What if the momentum dies down?' But once we got in there, we realized that we felt so good together doing it. The weight was lifted. It was like, 'Right! This is what we do.'"
Let's Be Still was recorded at Seattle's Studio Litho with assistance from prior production collaborator Shawn Simmons. Later, the band traversed the country to mix the album in Bridgeport, Conn., with Peter Katis, revered for his work with bands such as the National, Interpol and the Swell Season. The 13 tracks here build naturally on both the sounds and themes of the debut, from the piano and violin-dappled opener "Homecoming Heroes" and the heartfelt "Josh McBride" to vibrant, bouncy future concert staples "Shake" and "My Friends."
"The first record was written and recorded with a lot of limitations. It's almost easier that way," says Zasche. "This time around, with more time and resources, there were few limitations, so we had to be in charge of keeping a focus and not getting distracted but at the same time exploring the options available. It wasn't easy, but from this I think a clearer, more focused record has been made."
Band members point to "Another Story" as a moment that embodies their collective creative spirit. Russell wrote the song shortly after the elementary school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., but hadn't showed it to anyone in the band except Johnson. "One day everyone was taking a break from tracking and I was sitting in my booth and started to play this song," Russell recalls. "You could hear what I was doing in the control room and then one by one, a bandmate would walk in, grab their instrument and start playing along. We didn't talk about it. We didn't have to go back and rearrange anything. It was all there." Adds Williams, "Jon is so smart about waiting to introduce new ideas. He knows when the mood will be right." Says Johnson, "The song was undeniable, and the vibe didn't change from when he was playing it acoustically. Everybody just lifted it up, in the way that this band does."
On the opposite end of the spectrum was "Gone," which dated back to sessions for the debut album but didn't make the cut the first time around. The band wrestled with the arrangement while performing it live for several years, and finally cracked the code after adding a laid-back bass-and-drum groove to the beginning. Described by Thielen as "striking" in its solo acoustic form, Johnson's "Fire / Fear" underwent similar revisions until the rest of the band settled on a new progression to link the verses together. "There is a lot more patience in the music," says Russell. "I think that has a lot to do with feeling more comfortable as a songwriter and a performer."
During the mixing process, Katis was tasked with polishing what Johnson describes as "a beautiful mess" of finished tracks. Says Williams, "We have a certain energy when we play shows that didn't translate to the first record. I was getting worried about that before we went to Peter's. Things seemed a bit muted and dry to me. But I didn't realize how much mixing could change a record. Peter actually went in and messed with tones, had some production suggestions and wound up really being the right guy to help us finish the record." "His mixes turned the songs around, and breathed vibrancy into them," says Thielen. "He added some auxiliary details that helped make things more full-bodied, but still within the realm of what we do. It was really refreshing."
With Let's Be Still ready for release, The Head and the Heart is eager to return to the road to further hone the musical bond its members formed in such whirlwind fashion. "When I think about the two records together, the first one feels like we all wanted to fulfill this dream we'd had about playing music, meeting people and traveling around," says Williams. "This one feels like the consequences of doing that -- what relationships did you ruin? What other things did you miss? You always think it will all be perfect once you just do 'this.' And that's not always the case."
Adds Russell, "Has there been an impact on our lives since we have become full-time musicians? Sure. No band wants to write that second record about how hard they have it. But it's hard to get around all of it. There are a few songs on this record that express the band's hardships for sure. On one hand, it's everything you have ever wanted. On the other hand, you start to miss the things you've lost and had to give up. And that's just life. My job is to write about it."
"The first album was me wanting to burn down my life, cut my hair off, and run screaming into the woods," says Alejandro Rose-Garcia. "This album is the trials and tribulations of becoming domesticated, letting people into your world and letting go of selfishness -- the story of becoming a pair, losing that, and reconciling with the loss and gain of love."
Rose-Garcia is professionally known as Shakey Graves, and with his new record, "And the War Came," he extends the ground -- emotionally and sonically -- broken by his 2011 self-released debut album, "Roll the Bones," which brought him national acclaim and, three years later, still ranks near the top of Bandcamp's digital best-seller charts.
"Roll the Bones" established the powerful, mesmerizing Shakey Graves sound of Rose-Garcia accompanying himself on guitar and a handmade kick drum built out of an old suitcase. NPR Music named him one of 10 artists music fans "should've known in 2012," describing him as "astonishing...unclassifiably original. And frighteningly good." Paste included him in a "Best of What's Next" feature, praising his "gnarly composite of blues and folk," while The New York Times observed that Shakey Graves "makes the one-man band approach look effortless.
But while this distinctive arrangement continued to earn him an ever-expanding fan base on the road, Rose-Garcia knew that he wanted the follow-up to achieve something different. "With the first album, I didn't have any expectations except my own," he says. "This time, I was making something people were going to listen to out of the gate. I tried to maintain everything I enjoy about recording, the weird homemade aspect, but I was seeking a new, shining sound quality. The concepts for the songs are a little bigger. This is not the 'Mr, Folk, Hobo Mountain' album -- it's more of the Cyborg Shakey Graves. It's definitely the next step in the staircase."
An experienced actor who had a recurring role on "Friday Night Lights" and appeared in several of Robert Rodriguez films, Rose-Garcia started making music as part of New York City's "anti-folk" scene. While knocking around the underground music community in Los Angeles, he saw a performance by one-man band Bob Log III that pointed his work in a new direction. Since returning to Austin, Rose-Garcia has become so closely associated with his hometown that for the last three years, Austin has celebrated "Shakey Graves Day" by mayoral proclamation.