Rough Trade, 2008

Colin Meloy. You either love him or you hate him. At times I’ve found myself wanting to do both. He’s the perennial literate geek come celebrated indie star.

He’s charming and ruggedly handsome, self-assured and intelligent, with a Morrissey fetish that is second to none. When he speaks in that rich and distinct voice of his, he’s both an orator and story-teller par excellence, and you feel compelled to listen. I’ve stood in crowded rooms watching him front his band The Decemberists, with the audience firmly in the palm of his hand. I’ve witnessed him command a room to sit, and as the docile canines he thought us to be, we obediently obeyed. His masters voice is all, it seems.

Live albums can be something of a peculiar indulgence for the artist. They’re either instruments to which fans get fleeced or they’re a valid historical document. Rarely are they welcomed when the band is still active, mainly aimed at the hardened fan who will buy all and everything or for the handful who can say “I was there!” With this thought in mind, Meloy wisely chose cuts from a mix of 8 shows during his 2006 solo tour, thereby capitalizing on those eager hands wishing for their own personal memento. The downside of this is …Sings Live! is not a warts-and-all document, the selections are hand-picked, the mistakes passed over. Meloy’s superfluous banter and audience interaction have been included to make it sound more alive, but the selections are done so with this in mind and such is the nature of live recordings, you’re only hearing what they want you to.

The tracks on offer here (be aware of the multiple download versions with bonus songs) run the breadth of Meloy’s extensive songbook from his early outfit Tarkio, to selections that drop in at all points on the Decemberists catalogue. For extra value, there’s the enticement of two new songs, one of which offers a brief moment of self-serving levity where Meloy deigns to share with us the worst song he ever wrote, in the barely-a-song “Dracula’s Daughter”, as if to say “well, I’ve already given you the best…” It’s played to comical effect, but the gesture feels conceited, and is a moment best skipped. The other new song on offer is a delicate dedication to the first addition of the Meloy clan, only a few months old when this song was performed.

There aren’t many musicians who can play a twelve minute song on a twelve-string guitar and not have me wishing for a broken string to bring about a swift finale, and unfortunately Meloy isn’t one of them, as he attempts on the long-winded journey and fan favourite that is “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade”. The shame here is that while Meloy is an affable entertainer, he has mostly chosen to perform his least entertaining and lively songs. There are exceptions, the beautiful “Engine Driver” which benefits from the unadorned acoustic touch, the audience lending their voice in support, and the mirth and whimsy of “Bandit Queen”, but its not enough. Even breaking up the monotony with flourishes and verse via R.E.M., Fleetwood Mac and The Smiths, are amusing touches at best, but fail to breathe real life to the proceedings. Not to detract from Meloy as a compelling songwriter and more than competent musician, but like the little tour-only EPs he regularly furnishes the faithful with, this is something best left sold from a suitcase on the side of the stage.