The Decemberists

“They’ve come to find you / Odalisque / as the light dies horribly”

Album Year Rating
Five Songs EP 2001 2.37/pi
Castaways & Cutouts 2002 2.88/pi
Her Majesty 2003 2.80/pi
The Tain EP 2004 2.86/pi
Billy Liar EP 2004 2.12/pi
Picaresque 2005 2.82/pi

Main lineup: Colin Meloy: guitar, vocals. Jenny Conlee: accordion, keyboards, vocals. Rachel Blumberg: drums, percussion, vocals beignning with Her Majesty. Chris Funk: guitar, theremin, vocals. Nate Query: bass, vocals, except on Her Majesty.

Other personnel: Jesse Emerson: bass on Her Majesty. Ezra Holbrook: drums, vocals on 5 Songs and Castaways.

FIVE SONGS EP

2001; Rating: 2.37/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: + / Production: + / Innovation: +

  • 01 Oceanside [A−]
  • 02 Shiny [A]
  • 03 My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist [C−]
  • 04 Angel Won’t You Call Me? [B+]
  • 05 I Don’t Mind [A−]
  • 06 Apology Song [B−]

There’s something about a group of twee indie guys recording a six-song EP called “Five Songs” that gives me the urge to punch someone in the face. But I will resist, dear public, because alas!, it is the Decemberists of whom we speak! I could never punch my good friend Colin Meloy in the face, even though he did write “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist”. You see, that offensively mediocre track 3 up there is clearly the predecessor of all those old-timey pirate songs the band is famous for, and yet it’s so hookless and unconvincing that it almost casts doubt on all of the band’s future work. I had to remind myself after listening to it that, yes, people grow, people learn, young Colin was just a lost lad who trod down a foolish path.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is, this debut EP shows the band in an embryonic state, with their schtick not yet perfected, and sometimes with their pants down. The closing “Apology Song”, for example, is one long in-joke about a stolen bike. BAD Colin! No biscuit!!

It’s true, Colin Meloy is actually my dog. He’s a pink Boston terrier.

While you’re hear (get it??? “hear”!), why not listen to a lovely little song like “Shiny” or “I Don’t Mind”? That’ll cheer you up. Honestly, it’s almost hard to believe that they were recorded by a pink terrier. “Shiny” in particular is perhaps the most convincing argument for this EP’s existence.

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CASTAWAYS & CUTOUTS

2002; Rating: 2.88/pi

Composition: ++ / Lyrics: ++ / Production: + / Innovation: + / Total: 2.88/pi

  • 01 Leslie Anne Levine [A−]
  • 02 Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect [A]
  • 03 July, July! [A]
  • 04 A Cautionary Song [B]
  • 05 Odalisque [A+]
  • 06 Cocoon [B+]
  • 07 Grace Cathedral Hill [B+]
  • 08 The Legionnaire’s Lament [B+]
  • 09 Clementine [B+]
  • 10 California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade [A+]

Now this is a shit of a good album leaf. I mean not just any pink terrier could write a dong like “Odalisque”, with a vicious organ riff and damn creepy lyrics. Or how about “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect”?: “Here I dreamt I was a soldier/ and I marched the streets of Birkenau / … / and just to lay with you / there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do / save lay my rifle down.” That’s realass writing, with proper grammar and everything!

The basic sound is a kind of gooey, fey, vaguely Dylanesque alt-country with the occasional string bass or accordion to spice things up. There are a couple nice rocking moments, but most of the album is downtempo, which gives us ample time to listen to Meloy’s strange, anachronistic words. It also makes the less musically exciting material in the second half melt together into one big blob, but it’s a lovely blob.

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HER MAJESTY

2003; Rating: 2.80/pi

Composition: ++ / Lyrics: ++ / Production: + / Innovation: +

  • 01 Shanty for the Arethusa [A]
  • 02 Billy Liar [A]
  • 03 Los Angeles, I’m Yours [A−]
  • 04 The Gymnast, High Above the Ground [A]
  • 05 The Bachelor and the Bride [B+]
  • 06 Song for Myla Goldberg [B+]
  • 07 The Soldiering Life [A]
  • 08 Red Right Ankle [A]
  • 09 The Chimbley Sweep [A−]
  • 10 I Was Meant for the Stage [B+]
  • 11 As I Rise [A−]

Apparently the band read my Castaways & Cutouts review, then went back in time to 2003 to record their second album, addressing the one complaint I had with the first one! That’s right, they’ve pumped up the diversity here very heavily, churning out a bunch of short, sweet songs, each with a distinct style and identity. No more second half blob for the Decemberists, nosirree!

The one thing they haven’t done is write a better set of songs than they did last time. This is a fine collection, certainly, but it sacrifices some of the old atmosphere for theatrics and pop bounce, and it just doesn’t quite match up to its predecessor as a living, breathing whole.

The atmospherics aren’t entirely gone; “Red Right Ankle” leads a soft, folky charge with beautiful lyrics about love and uncles and things. But “The Bachelor and the Bride” finds Meloy traipsing through a Duchamp ‘painting’; “The Soldiering Life” places him in a strangely homoerotic World War I trench; “Los Angeles I’m Yours” is one big municipal diss wrapped in smarmy lite-pop; “I Was Meant for the Stage” is about being, uh, meant for the stage. All of these are fun songs, but they don’t really blow me away, if you know what I mean.

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THE TAIN EP

2004; Rating: 2.86/pi

Composition: ++ / Lyrics: ++ / Production: ++ / Innovation: ~

  • 01 The Tain [A]
  • Part I [A−]
  • Part II [A]
  • Part III [A−]
  • Part IV [A]
  • Part V [A]

Hey, this time it’s a one-song EP. Eighteen minutes long! What is this, 1972? 1837??? 1048??????? 47,000,000,000,000 BC??????????????? Well, the Decemberists have always been anachronauts, and they ain’t about to stop now. This half-length finds them (very loosely) adapting a Celtic legend into a hard-rockin’ prog epic with gusto, verve, sugar, spice, and more! I’m mighty impressed to see a young band pull off a tour de force like this, I must say. Bodes well for their next album. Keep ’em coming, kids!

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BILLY LIAR EP

2004; Rating: 2.12/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: + / Production: + / Innovation: ~

  • 01 Billy Liar [A]
  • 02 Los Angeles, I’m Yours [A−]
  • 03 Everything I Try to Do, Nothing Seems to Turn Out Right [A−]
  • 04 Sunshine [B]

For some reason, those wacky Decemberists decided to keep their name in the headlines by spinning off a single from Her Majesty over a year after it came out. “Billy Liar”, is, of course, a mexcellent pop song, skipping away into an infinity of do do do do do do do do dos. “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” is pointlessly reprised from the LP. Then we get a coupla outtakes, one good, one not so good. I’ll leave you to guess which is which, because that’s just the sort of mysteeerious reviewer I am.

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PICARESQUE

2005; Rating: 2.82/pi

Composition: ++ / Lyrics: ++ / Production: ++ / Innovation: ~

  • 01 Infanta [A−]
  • 02 We Both Go Down Together [A]
  • 03 Eli the Barrow Boy [B+]
  • 04 A Cautionary Song [A]
  • 05 The Bagman’s Gambit [A−]
  • 06 From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea) [B+]
  • 07 16 Military Wives [A−]
  • 08 The Engine Driver [A]
  • 09 On the Bus Mall [A+]
  • 10 The Mariner’s Revenge Song [A+]
  • 11 Of Angels and Angles [B+]

The Decemberists are back. Not that they ever really left, having remained constant fixtures on the indie scene in the two years since the release of their last full-length. If anyone was hoping for a prog-rock opus to match last year’s “The Tain”, they may be disappointed. But it’s hard to imagine anyone being too disappointed with this album, since it’s basically just another successful iteration of the sound they’ve been developing since 2001. You could possibly make the case that the band’s sound has grown even more baroque and ornamented since Her Majesty, but the formula is basically the same.

Thankfully, the band’s abilities remain as formidable as their collection of Dickens novels. On the nine-minute “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, they pull out all the stops for their most glorious pirate song yet. Anyone who doesn’t come out of this track with a huge grin on their face is probably in a persistent vegetative state. But “On the Bus Mall” may be the highlight, an escapee from jangle-pop heaven that recalls and then tramples the second half of Castaways & Cutouts, with a showstopping Dylanesque vocal twist on the refrain. I hope you can some day forgive me for using the word “Dylanesque” twice on this page.

It’s not the perfect album we were all hoping for. Colin et al have developed a tendency to interrupt the flow of the songs with pointless digressions (maybe they’re turning prog after all.) Still, this is a very strong album, as good as anything they’ve done. It leads me to wonder how much longer they can keep this formula fresh…but I’ll save those worries for another time.

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