Thursday, October 21, 2004

Castaways and Cutouts The Decemberists

Release Date: 6 May., 2003
Review Written: 2 Mar., 2004
Rating: 8

It’s an amazing irony that the contents of fragile papyrus have outlasted thick and sturdy stone. The Greek literary classics, in spite of odds that would make a bookie blush, have survived thousands of years while The Parthenon and its ilk have become crumbled shells of what they once were. The need and desire for a story has kept these tales alive – buildings are ephemeral but a good story is immortal. Colin Meloy, lyricist and vocalist for The Decemberists, realizes this truth.

Meloy spins tales of ghosts in the late 1800’s and wharf-side prostitutes in an antiquated language that might sound cumbersome in lesser hands. “Leslie Anne Levine” presents the story of a child abandoned at birth. That ghost child is then forced by her own misery to wander the streets of some London district. I say London because there seems to be something entirely British about The Decemberists - there is a prim and proper quality to their songs. That bit of England continues on in “A Cautionary Song.” But it’s a Nuevo British thing – the song sounds like equal doses Jeff Mangum and Captain Cook. This pirate infused polka song (yes, polka) is, indeed, a cautionary tale about a child who is told that their mother is a rather lurid prostitute by night in order to feed the child by day. The child is cautioned to remember what their mother does for them when she feeds them collard greens. A stretch, but it comes off as entirely pleasant and entertaining.

It should always be remembered that, without music, a song is merely a poem. And The Decemberists seem to heed this important bit knowledge. The band keeps most of the songs interesting with some extremely fine playing. On the only true up-tempo rocker on the album, “July, July!” Meloy’s voice is placed front and center in the mix while the band kicks out an awfully fun sounding groove. Of note is Chris Funk’s intensely tight guitar playing panned hard right. “Odalisque” is a duly creepy song about, what else, an odalisque. For those unfamiliar: a female slave or concubine in a harem. The concubine has a baby, it is aborted, and she then attempts suicide. The music accompanies all these twists and turns with flair and panache. The final song, “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” is a dual-tune that reminds me of driving along the west coast. It feels good and begs for a sunroof and a warm day.

As good as Castaways and Cutouts is, it still has flaws. These flaws are “Cocoon” and “Clementine.” They’re sweet songs – they sound sweet, the lyrics are sweet, and they’re entirely polite. And therein lies the rub. They’re too polite. While The Decemberists are tainted by England, they’re more of a Cockney than a Posh. These two songs do not fit in with the rest and, ultimately, mar the record as a whole.

Minor flaws aside, The Decemberists are on to something – good writing. They’re proof positive that with good writing an album will always be enjoyable.


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