6

The Decemberists – Ripping Off R.E.M.?

After listening to the Decemberists’ third CD Picaresque, I am left with one lingering question: Why didn’t R.E.M. sue the band for plagiarism?

The third cut from the album, “We Both Go Down Together,” bears more than just a passing resemblance to “Losing My Religion.” It’s in the same minor key, has almost the same tempo, and features the same rhythm. Even the chord progression and melody during the verses are similar.  Not convinced? Check it out (R.E.M. first, followed by the Decemberists):

[player id=5799]

Uncanny, ain’t it? Chalk one up to R.E.M. for letting it slide.

Overall, Picaresque is about what I expected from the Decemberists, with a few pleasant surprises: Some bizarre cuts (“Infanta” begins with what sounds like an elephant trumpeting), a lot of minor key songs that plod along aimlessly, poetic lyrics and two upbeat songs that are actually fun to listen to. Unfortunately, the least listenable cut on the album is eight minutes long.

So far, I’m starting to get a feel for the group:

  • Judging from their lyrics, these people are obsessed with death.
  • Colin Meloy has an annoying voice. And for someone from Montana, why does he sound British?
  • They’re quirky!

Stephen at the excellent blog Don’t Burn the Day Away commented on my last Decemberists post and made a valid point about indie music: “There’s a fair bit there that actually (IMHO) enjoys being unlistenable or at least hard to get into.” There’s a fair bit of the Decemberists that seems to enjoy being hard to get into. The Moviegoer Blog summed up reasons why the band members probably got beat up in high school:

This is a band that named their first EP 5 Songs and then, perversely, went ahead and put six songs on it; a band that has written rambling, showoffily erudite story-songs about 19th-century sailors, Shakespearean plays, rogue Irish paramilitary killers, Tom Courtenay movie characters, Spanish royalty, and Victorian “chimbley sweeps”; a band that has aggressively tasted the patience of listeners by recording numerous epic song suites, including the 18-minute mini-opera “The Tain,” based on a story from Celtic mythology; a band that couldn’t stick to a single normal time signature for more than two minutes if you held a gun to their heads; a band whose unabashed anglophilia can’t help but seem a little affected in a band from Portland, Oregon.

I once compared Joy Division’s music to modern art; some people get it, but I don’t. Where others see simplicity in geometric forms or a new level of supreme consciousness, I see a black square.

I’m like that with my choice in music. You don’t have to have a perfect voice, but just sing the damn notes. Deep lyrics are okay, but don’t try to impress me; stupid lyrics are fine, but don’t make me censor it for my kids, and don’t use bad grammar. And most importantly, play music that has a melody. (My wife is looking over my shoulder and thinks my posts are too negative. I’m getting crotchety.) At times, the Decemberists’ music makes me happy, but for the most part, I feel like Carrot Top at a poetry reading.

But wow, the lyrics are amazing. It’s poetry, really, with disturbingly fascinating storylines, a rich vocabulary and vivid depictions. From “The Infanta”:

And as she sits upon her place, her innocence laid on her face
from all atop the parapets blow a multitude of coronets
melodies rhapsodical and fair, and all our hearts afire
the sky ablaze with cannon fire
we all raise our voices to the air

You don’t really need music for that.

Next up: The Crane Wife, apparently their most accessible album. If I don’t get it then, I’m a hopeless cause.

Share this:

Peter Lee

6 Comments

  1. Agreed! I succumbed to the hype about The Crane Wife and bought it: my first thought was REM. They’re OK, maybe more interesting than many groups of their type, perhaps because of the subject matter of their songs, but if you’ve heard a bit of folk music they’re not as special as they’re made out to be. So – overrated, yes, good – also yes!

  2. “You don’t have to have a perfect voice, but just sing the damn notes. Deep lyrics are okay, but don’t try to impress me; stupid lyrics are fine, but don’t make me censor it for my kids, and don’t use bad grammar. And most importantly, play music that has a melody.”

    This really discounts a lot of fantastic, ground-breaking, critically acclaimed music. I’m surprised since you seem to like music enough to write about it and that you have a whole blog dedicated to doing just that. Sounds more like you just want to complain about music.

  3. Sounds more like you just want to complain about music.

    Um, yeah, that’s part of what this blog is about – complaining about the state of today’s music. I think we’ve gotten away from what really counts in music – chords, melody, harmony – and breaking new ground does not always necessarily advance the art form. Lyrics are only part of a song, and if you can’t write or sing a melody, you’re lacking in my book.

  4. Even if the songs are in the same minor key and have the same tempo, the chord progressions are different enough that it would be more of an “homage” than a rip-off.

  5. Thanks for the nod and the “excellent” comment. As for overrated music, more people should complain about the crap that’s out there and conversely praise the good. I don’t tend to write about what I dislike, but very much enjoy when and how you do so, it’s just as valid as praise of noteworthy groups. Maybe I just enjoy a good rant. Keep up the excellent work.

Comments are closed.