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Don't Start the Revolution Without Them

  The Decemberists: Castaways and Cutouts

 

Kill Rock Stars, 2003

Rating: 4.0

 

    The Decemberists: Her Majesty the Decemberists

 

Kill Rock Stars, 2003

Rating: 4.2

 

 

Posted: September 19, 2003

By Laurence Station

Colin Meloy and his fellow Decemberists care about history's castoffs; those individuals who -- through no particular fault of their own -- got the shaft when it came to enjoying a long, fruitful and productive life. Two such characters from the band's full-length debut, Castaways and Cutouts, regrettably illustrate this point all too well: "Leslie Anne Levine" is a baby ghost who laments being "born at nine and dead at noon," while the mother in "A Cautionary Song" is reduced to whoring herself out to sailors just to keep food on the table. It's this ability to empathize and give voice to the unlucky and forgotten -- along with some crackerjack musicianship -- that makes Portland's Decemberists (named after a doomed band of 19th century Russian revolutionaries) a pop outfit worth following.

Principal singer/songwriter Meloy has been too easily pegged as the second coming of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum. The aggressively reclusive Mangum endures a slavish, cult-like following, thanks primarily to NMH's 1998 masterpiece In An Aeroplane Over the Sea. Like Meloy, Mangum exhibited a fascination with historical events, preferred bombastic, marching band style backing music and sang in a high, near-breaking-whine vocal range. But Meloy and the unique, but still very human, characters populating his songbook are better likened to Robyn Hitchcock and his oddball "Man With the Lightbulb Head" than Mangum's loopily surrealist "King of Carrot Flowers".

Perhaps even more so than the socially conscious, Swiftian-satirical Hitchcock, Meloy simply wants to write great songs, which the ridiculously hook-laden Castaways and Cutouts offers in spades. The near-frantic, bouncing "July, July!" and the more reserved but no less memorable "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" ably show off Meloy's mastery of fundamental verse-chorus-verse structure, as well as his bandmates' ability to translate his words into stout, full-bodied musical compositions. Album centerpiece "Odalisque" -- powered by Jenny Conlee's darkly effective Hammond organ -- and the piano-based, mournful "Cocoon" reveal a band that isn't content merely to skate along on the strength of Meloy's clever, intentionally anachronistic wordplay; the Decemberists are dedicated to complementing and bolstering his left-of-center lyrics. The album falters a bit at the end, as the too languid "Clementine" slows things to a crawl before giving way to the impressive double-shot of rambling west coast folk, "California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade", but overall stands as one of the catchiest collections of artfully-crafted, intelligent pop songs released this year.

That Castaways was released in May (reissued, actually, as it originally came out on Hush Records last year), and its follow-up Her Majesty the Decemberists hits shelves less than six months later, might lead one to imagine the band has overextended itself -- working too quickly and not allowing the new material to mature properly. And, upon first listen, Her Majesty does seem to fall short of the high standard established by its predecessor. The hooks are less obvious, and the tales of castaways and hopeless no-accounts not nearly as prevalent. But like all good records, Her Majesty rewards repeated listenings, ultimately revealing itself to be a deeper, subtler work than Castaways.

The opening "Shanty for the Arethusa," with its rollicking rhythm and tale of ghostly seamen and hapless shanghaied travelers, falls in line with the sound and feel of Castaways and gets things off to a kicking start. But Meloy soon proves he has more on his mind than restless spirits and Spanish gypsies. "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" reveals a love-hate relationship with the City of Angels; the singer notes "Its hollowness will haunt you," but by song's end finds himself unable to crawl away from the source of his consternation and misery. "Red Right Ankle" dexterously argues that memory is as much a part of a person's physical makeup as a limb or muscle.

Album highlight "I Was Meant for the Stage" handily takes its place alongside Meloy's most personal songs, declaring, "I was meant for applause / I was meant for derision," before breaking down into a chaotic mess of crashing cymbals and angrily strafing horns. The only glaring misstep is "The Chimbley Sweep", a relentlessly up-tempo number about a "wretched and miserable boy" whom Meloy seems to be parodying rather than empathizing with in the manner of his earlier snapshots of the downtrodden. The song's exuberant zeal and playful vocal delivery are utterly incongruous with the cruel grimness of the lyrics.

Taken together, Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty the Decemberists emphatically announce the arrival of an important new voice on the musical landscape. Perhaps, unlike their ill-fatted namesakes, The Decemberists will spark a revolution that leads to higher standards in pop music, a cause music lovers everywhere can certainly rally behind.

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