- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

Rock operas are difficult to create, challenging even the most imaginative musicians to fashion intricate story lines augmented by bombastic, theatrical music.

Once a fairly popular subgenre of rock ‘n’ roll, the rock opera has faded in recent memory, with few groups carrying the torch once held aloft by Pink Floyd, the Who and Rush.

So when Colin Meloy — lead singer and songwriter for the Decemberists — approached his band about recording a contemporary rock opera, no dissenting voices were raised.

Drummer John Moen says his fellow band members have grown accustomed to their leader’s unconventional ideas.

“We knew a rock opera was on his mind. He’d been thinking about it for a long time, although he originally wanted to make the project into a Broadway musical,” Mr. Moen says. “Everyone was up for the challenge, though, and we’ve gotten used to Colin’s desire to change things up.

“I think that’s one of the best reasons to be in the Decemberists. You never know what to expect,” Mr. Moen adds after a brief pause.

“The Hazards of Love” was released in March. Although the music pays homage to British folk and American rock, the plot is decidedly otherworldly, with fairy-tale creatures populating the list of characters. In keeping with the story’s theatrical ambience, characters are voiced by specific musicians, including the Decemberists’ own members and several guest vocalists.

The band will play the entire album during its summer tour.

Even so, don’t expect the Decemberists to take the stage in makeup and fairy-tale costumes.

“It’s a tough row to hoe,” Mr. Moen admits, “but we’ve chosen not to ‘overillustrate’ it. We’re taking along our own light show to create a nice ambience, but I don’t think anybody is going to act anything out.”

The Decemberists visit the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., on Monday. Andrew Bird and Robyn Hitchcock also perform. Doors open at 7 p.m., and tickets start at $30.

Pair of Mavericks

After a 17-year hiatus, songwriters Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple have resumed the partnership that once fueled the seminal music of the dB’s.

The North Carolina natives rose to minor prominence in the 1980s when their mutual affinity for the Beatles and the Kinks helped shape a series of smart, nuanced pop albums. Although the dB’s disbanded during the decade’s latter half, the two songwriters maintained a working relationship for several years. They later split ways after the recording of “Mavericks,” a collaborative album that furthered the pair’s fusion of jangling rock and collegiate pop.

Nearly two decades later, Mr. Stamey and Mr. Holsapple are refreshed, reinvigorated and reunited.

The duo’s new album, “Here and Now,” which the cover prints as “hERE aND nOW,” owes much of its existence to former R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt, who encouraged the two musicians to rekindle their spark. At his suggestion, Mr. Stamey briefly joined Mr. Holsapple in New Orleans in 2005. They holed themselves up in Piety Street Studios, composing a wealth of new music in the process.

Mr. Stamey says the sessions were inspired, although bad weather ultimately cut them short. “We got a lot of good stuff going in a short amount of time, and we decided to ‘go for it.’ However, Hurricane Katrina went for it first.”

As wind, water and waves besieged New Orleans, the reunion was sidelined temporarily. Mr. Stamey returned to his Chapel Hill home, and Mr. Holsapple followed shortly thereafter. For the first time in years, the two were virtual neighbors. Buoyed by such proximity, they decided to launch the reunion once again.

Rather than writing new songs in a collaborative setting, however, the two brought their own compositions to the table. Songs were then poked and prodded, with special attention paid to the lyrics and arrangements.

“We ‘Beatled’ it a bit. We helped each other finish songs and lines,” Mr. Stamey says.

“Chris and I have only written a couple songs together in all the years we’ve been friends,” Mr. Holsapple explains. We are both somewhat self-sufficient, and we trust each other’s instincts when it comes to songwriting. It’s hard to be completely objective about songs you’ve written, though, so it helps to have a partner as savvy as Chris who can cast a less jaundiced eye on my songs.”

“Here and Now” will be released on Tuesday, one day after Mr. Stamey and Mr. Holsapple’s performance at the Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington. Although sporadic tour dates will keep them on the road all month, the two are working concurrently on a new dB’s album as well.

Mr. Stamey, who also runs the Modern Recording studio in Chapel Hill, says the dB’s project is progressing slowly but surely.

“We’re overburdened with songs at this point,” he says. “I think we have 17 in the works. Right now we don’t have any money to finish the dB’s record, though, and we don’t want to sign to a label. We are keeping our fingers crossed that we can fix that problem. We are open to angelic intervention.”

Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple kick off their summer tour Monday at the Iota Club in Arlington. Tickets to the 8:30 p.m. performance are $15.

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