Decemberists


(Copyright © 2003-2024 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Castaways and Cutouts (2002), 7/10
Her Majesty (2003), 6.5/10
The Tain (2004), 7.5/10 (EP)
Picaresque (2005), 7/10
The Crane Wife (2006), 6/10
The Hazards of Love (2009) , 5/10
The King Is Dead (2011), 5/10
What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World (2015), 5/10
I'll Be Your Girl (2018), 4.5/10
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The Decemberists are a quintet from Portland (singer-songwriter Colin Meloy of Montana-based Tarkio, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, guitarist Chris Funk, bassist Jesse Emerson, drummer Rachel Blumberg) that reinvented pop music from a scholarly viewpoint. The six-song EP Five Songs (2001) already displayed an unusual balance of brainy lyrics and simple melodies: Oceanside, Shiny, My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist, Angel, Won't You Call Me?, I Don't Mind, The Apology Song.

Castaways and Cutouts (Hush, 2002 - Kill Rock Stars, 2003 - Jealous Butcher, 2005) is a collection of infectious pop constructions, ranging from the lively folk-rock of July July a` la Turtles to the Mersey-beat march and soaring refrain of The Legionnaire's Lament to the Kurt Weill-ian cabaret sketch of A Cautionary Song. They rank with the best of Neutral Milk Hotel. However, the real soul of the album and of the group lies in the laid-back moody moments, that vastly outnumber the effervescent ones: the quietly solemn country-rock of Leslie Anne Levine, the desolate lament with gospel organ of Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect the soul-rock shuffle with accordion and organ Odalisque, the sleepy piano-based lounge ballad of Cocoon, the subdued serenade Grace Cathedral Hill, culminating with the ten-minute quasi-psychedelic meditation of California One Youth and Beauty Brigade.

Her Majesty (Kill Rock Stars, 2003) is less entertaining, probably because it was recorded with less acumen and patience, but it still contains its dose of catchy melodies (Billy Liar, Song For Myla Goldberg), as well as more pensive and elaborate compositions (the seven-minute The Gymnast High Above the Ground, the seven-minute I Was Meant for the Stage). Half way between the two are simple singalongs enhanced with eccentric music: The Chimbley Sweep nods at music-hall and Parisian street music, the accompaniment of Shanty for the Arethusa could have been lifted from a western-movie soundtrack. They occasionally slip into moronic balladry (Los Angeles I'm Yours, The Bachelor and the Bride) that only proves the limitations of the whole project.

The EP The Tain (Acuarela, 2004) contains the eponymous 18-minute five-movement track, a folk-rock hymn for the post-nuclear age that borrows from blues, country, rock, soul, Indian and vaudeville modes. It would remain the zenith of their art, and one of the milestones of that era. The EP will be collected on The Tain/Five Songs (Jealous Butcher, 2004).

Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars, 2005), wth John Moen on drums and Petra Haden on violin, demonstrated Colin Meloy's growth as a singer and arranger, and the band's generally inspired mood. If the most visible facet of their art is the stately folk-pop cavalcade The Infanta (one of their most captivating creations), they run the gamut with classic elegance and simplicity from the romantic Turtles-like ditty We Both Go Down Together to the melancholy Eli the Barrow Boy), drenched in the pathos of a medieval British ballad; from the bouncing rhythm of The Sporting Life, that evokes the party music of Tamla Motown and the Supremes, to the sophistication of the seven-minute The Bagman's Gambit, that harkens back to the emphatic progressive-rock of the 1970s. The spectrum is enormous. Rarely has one voice covered so much territory while searching for its soul. The arrangements change all the time: the funereal Leonard Cohen-ian From My Own True Love, the trotting rhythm'n'blues 16 Military Wives (possibly the most hummable refrain), the tragicomic, cabaret-tish, nine-minute fantasia The Mariner's Revenge Song. This album is a tour de force of emotional storytelling.

Their fourth album, The Crane Wife (2006), turned out to be their most experimental yet, thanks to the rambling multi-part suites: the 12-minute The Island and the 12-minute The Crane Wife.

The rock opera The Hazards of Love (2009) feels like a mess. The songs are shaped by an army of distinguished guests (Robyn Hitcock, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, the Spinanes' Rebecca Gates, Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark, My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden) but mostly those songs sound dysfunctional, as if the guests had been called as a necessity (to a fundamentally flawed composition) rather than an add-on. Mostly the mood is subdued, and the musicians don't seem excited at all: diligent but detached. Hence we get the folk-tinged power-ballad The Hazards Of Love 1 (a less hsyterical version of Led Zeppelin's ventures in that genre); the roaring and limping folk-rock of Won't Want For Love (with Becky Stark on vocals); the polite lullaby Isn't It A Lovely Night? (like Donovan fronting a country-rock combo); the stereotypical country elegy The Hazards Of Love 4. The opera wakes up with The Wanting Comes In Waves, initially smothered in harpsichord tones but rescued in a vehement bluesy register by Shara Worden over gritty bar-band jamming; with The Rake's Song, the only song that lives up to the rock pathos of the Who's Tommy; the galopping The Abduction Of Margaret; and another majestic blues by Shara Worden, The Queen's Rebuke, boasting the slowest and dirtiest riffs of the album. The orchestration is occasionally ambitious (the Prelude for funereal organ, closed by celestial synthesizer and a string trio, or Annan Water, that lines up dulcimer, church organ, zither, accordion, mandolin, hurdy gurdy, autoharp, synthesizer, or the neoclassical rondo The Hazards Of Love 3 for harpsichord, children's choir and strings), but has to work with mediocre melodies. The opera has its moments of charm, but mostly it ends up being just background pop muzak when it aimed at being a profound statement.

The King Is Dead (2011) retreated decisively into country-rock with Don't Carry it All (a dead ringer for Neil Young's Harvest) and the anthemic Down By the Water (halfway between the Band and the Byrds via R.E.M.). A few detours into spartan folk meditations, notably the impressionistic Donovan-esque January Hymn, attest to the sincerity and passion of the project.

What A Terrible World What A Beautiful World (Capitol Records, 2015), another unassuming collection, should have been an EP. Half of the album is filler. The jovial Tamla-esque soul of Cavalry Captain, the power-ballad The Wrong Year and Make You Better (which sounds like an R.E.M. remix of The Crane Wife) don't add much to their canon: it's lightweight middle-of-the-road rock. The old-fashioned Alan Stivell-esque folk-rock lullaby Better Not Wake the Baby, the waltzing Band-esque grass-roots singalong Anti-Summersong and the pompous martial anthem A Beginning Song are not groundbreaking but at least impeccable in their traditionalist take. Melodically, the winner is the elegant 1960s-style bubblegum-pop ditty Philomena (the Hollies or Tommy Roe with naughty sexual lyrics by Frank Zappa).

The synth-laden I'll Be Your Girl (Capitol Records, 2018) winks at the synth-pop revival of the time: Cutting Stone is the kind of pop ballad that was popular during the heydays of disco-music, and Severed is a pulsing litany in the style of New Order and Billy Idol. There are two Beatles parodies: Sucker's Prayer (too similar to Don't Let Me Down to be an accident) and We All Die Young (echoes of Come Together). The Caribbean ballad I'll Be Your Girl, the repetitive and bombastic Once in My Life and the eight-minute sedative Rusalka Rusalka the Wild Rushes embody all that is wrong with this album. The odd standout here is the baroque and clownish pop ditty Everything Is Awful. On the other hand, the trotting Your Ghost evokes the Moody Blues, and it is not funny.

(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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