Review & Musings: Decemberists at Stanley Park & How We Describe a Band’s Sound
Last night I headed to Stanley Park to enjoy one of my favourite Vancouver summer pastimes- listening to a concert in the open air at the Malkin Bowl.
Oregon-based folk rockers, The Decemberists, were at the venue playing one of the final stops in a tour promoting their latest album, The King is Dead. The group is a band I’ve followed and enjoyed for years, from their nautically-influenced earlier work to their latest American-folk influenced album, with its plethora of violin, banjo, and open strummed guitar. Their development has been fascinating to follow coupled with the prospect of hearing how they would re-arrange the diverse musical stylings of the albums to neatly fit within the instrumental constraints of a live concert (especially with founding member and keyboardist Jenny Conlee currently off the roster).
The concert would prove to be one of those singular, incredible nights. The rich, heartfelt lyricism of the songs, ringing stacked harmonies, and straightforward folk musicality could not be experienced in a more perfect setting than on a warm summer night in beautiful Stanley Park. When I thought the evening could not get any better, they surprised by returning for an encore with a deeply poignant rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.”Footage of ‘Down by the Water’ from the August 23 concert.
Listening to the band, I thought about what an incredibly fruitful time we are living in – with regards to the quality of music being produced, but even more so – how we describe that music. To clarify, let’s look at the genre of ‘Rock’ in the 1970’s and 80’s.
During this time period, the notion of a musical genre was used to categorize a broad swath of musicians and bands, each of whom had a distinctly different sound. Listen to eight bars from most music of the era, and one can instantly say whether it is Zeppelin, The Stones, Genesis, or otherwise. Each group had a singular, unique sound and songwriting style that made their music.
This started to disappear in the ’90’s, as genres increasingly became about describing a homogenous type of sound or style of music being created by any number of interchangeable bands. Most telling about this time period, is that when describing what any given group sounded like, one inevitably did sound by comparing them to another currently popular group (ie. Try describing Third Eye Blind, Fastball, Eagle Eye Cherry, etc. without referencing each other or another similar band).
What an incredible contrast from how we describe so many of our chart toppers today. Bands like The Decemberists, The National, and Edward Sharpe and the Magentic Zeros (and closer to home, Hey Ocean and Dan Mangan) are not so easily described through comparison. Instead you must look to their roots, inspiration, and to the musical traditions they borrow from in order to explain what their music sounds like. To describe Mumford & Sons, we can’t say they sound like any other band that is on the charts, but instead must speak to the heavy British folk influence, intriguing use of soaring, rapidly picked banjo, and the incredible way in which their songs build momentum from restrained simplicity to roaring harmonious complexity.
None of this is to say that we’ve entered into a musical golden age akin to the ’70 or ’80’s; and it certainly isn’t a universal condemnation of the ’90’s as a musical dead zone. As marketers, we just have a fascination with the words and means we use to describe the world around us. The shift in the way we describe how popular bands sound is an extremely promising trend; one that we hope will continue to grow.