The Decemberists have likely been thinking about size over the past year. In October, the band made its major label debut with “The Crane Wife” (Capitol), an album whose larger-than-usual recording budget nudged the Oregon-based quintet a bit closer to prog rock. This year, the band is playing selected dates with orchestras, the first of them Saturday’s perf at the Hollywood Bowl with the L.A. Phil.
It was, according to the band’s singer and songwriter Colin Meloy, a dream come true. In the past, he told the adoring, nearly sold-out Bowl aud, he spent hours in the studio creating synthetic orchestras by overdubbing a single string player; working with a real orchestra, his songs “now sound like they were meant to.”
And the orchestrations, by Sean O’Loughlin, bring to Meloy’s music the same ornate quality as his lyrics, an equivalent vocabulary and diction that can curlicue and counterpoint the song much as his words do with the melodies. Most impressive was the wide range of coloring the orchestra brought — they touched on almost all the ways rock bands have used strings in the past and brought the band’s prog rock inclinations front and center.
They added heft and roiling energy to “The Infanta,” giving the song’s Technicolor caravan some widescreen sweep, the strings heaving and crashing like Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for “Victory at Sea.” It was especially fun to hear the tympani and cymbals adding their own emphatic punctuation to the end of each line. The delicate modal scale of the strings brought an ornamented exoticism to “Odalisque.” It gave the perf the spooky intensity of a great Gene Pitney song, while the Philip Glass coda added a quiescently darker edge to the already perverse song.
On “I Was Meant for the Stage,” the Decembrists showed they could match a rock band for noisiness — as Meloy and the rest of the band rolled around the stage, slapping and slamming their instruments, the orchestra sawed away, their mad, atonal ostinatos a perfect equivalent. But the showpiece was “The Tain, Parts I-V,” a suite as complex and over the top as anything in the Jethro Tull catalog. Here the orchestra and band found a balance as exquisite as anything performed by Procol Harum, the Moody Blues or Tull.
Only once did the sound approach the “Quinn Martin Moment” that afflicts every rock and orchestra project, when the orchestra pounds away in a ham-fisted, pseudo-jazzy style. But you get the feeling that for the Decemberists, that moment was intentional, as it occurred during “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” as Meloy ironically counted off his reasons for loving L.A.
The Decemberists, sans orchestra, play Gotham’s Central Park Summerstage on July 16.