A six-song EP titled Colin Meloy sings . . . Morrissey (self-released) of, yes, all Morrissey covers sounds like the kind of lonely-hearts production a disaffected high-school sophomore with only an acoustic guitar and a four-track for company might dream up in his bedroom. And though Colin Meloy has been a serious devotee of the former Smiths singer since he was just such a sulky teen, now that he’s the celebrated frontman of the Portland (Oregon) indie-pop eccentrics the Decemberists, such a project has a bit more clout. Even so, Meloy, who plays a solo show this Sunday at T.T. the Bear’s Place, is making the EP available only through a handful of solo performances. “I knew that I would never be able to release something like that, because I’m just not the vocalist or guitarist to be able to pull it off,” he says over the phone from Portland. “So I knew that I would have to release it in some form where it would be available only to those who really, really wanted it.”
That would be the increasingly large contingent that has been eagerly awaiting both the EP and the solo shows (which have sold out in advance in most cities). These fans have been devoted to Meloy and his band since they broke out with their second full-length, 2003’s Her Majesty, and a follow-up EP titled The Tain (both on Kill Rock Stars), the latter a quirky rendering of the Irish mythological tale Táin Bó Cúalnge (“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”). On both releases, the band distinguish themselves with intricate narratives, dense, literate lyrics, historical references, and literary allusions. All of which makes evident Meloy’s debt to Morrissey. His band mates — pedal-steel-guitarist Chris Funk, accordion/keyboardist Jenny Conlee, drummer Rachel Blumberg, and bassist Nate Query — support his vision with arrangements that have the complexity and the scope of musical theater. It’s an approach that’s put the Decemberists at the forefront of a new group of indie experimenters, from Bright Eyes and the Arcade Fire to the Fiery Furnaces and Broken Social Scene, bands who push the boundaries of song structure and subject matter with offbeat orchestrations, non-traditional lyrics, and sonic cross-pollinations that borrow freely from the last four decades of pop music and beyond.
Meloy says the band’s forthcoming Picaresque (scheduled for March) is a bolder, more rockist affair than the first two discs. And he intends to introduce some of the new material in his T.T.’s solo set. Solo shows were his staple for the first year he played out in Portland, and he still enjoys the opportunity they offer to experiment and improvise. “Granted, I’ll try to keep the self-indulgence a little limited,” he says, laughing. “Just because people will want to hear songs that they know, but it’s an opportunity to have a bit more of a free-form base rather than playing with a band, where you have to stick to a set.”
Still, he has no illusions about measuring up to Morrissey in the self-indulgence department. “I think he was a hero to a lot of people of my ilk, just because he was this kind of shy, bookish loser who became this kind of over the top, kind of homo-erotic sex symbol to some people. That’s definitely out of my depth, but I’m impressed by his ability to play the smartness of his lyrics off the silliness of his public persona.”