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A Tale of Two EPs

  The Decemberists: Five Songs [EP]

 

Hush, 2002 / Self-released, 2001

Rating: 3.5

 

   

The Decemberists: The Tain [EP]

Acuarela, 2004

Rating: 4.5

Posted: March 15, 2004

By Laurence Station

The release of The Decemberists' latest work, The Tain, affords an opportunity to compare and contrast it with the indie pop band's debut, Five Songs, which was originally self-released in 2001. Book-ending the group's two full-lengths, Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty the Decemberists, the pair of EPs reflect the twin poles of the band's musical psyche: Five Songs (which had a bonus sixth cut added when Hush re-released it) brims with unabashed sing-along pop harmonies and burnished, bright production; The Tain couldn't be more opposite, a single eighteen-and-a-half minute-long composition broken into five distinct movements and inspired by Ireland's famous Cattle Raid of Cooley tale from the Ulster Cycle.

Colin Meloy, the Decemberists' lead singer and primary songwriter, has revealed a penchant for historically based yarns on each release, so The Tain isn't exactly a left-field addition to the band's catalog. By contrast, Five Songs contains only one story-song, the engaging "My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist," in which Meloy recounts a young man's dismay at his parents' exciting courtship and work with the French Resistance before his birth. Without this tune, Five Songs would mainly consist of mid-tempo hangdog love ballads, featuring a lot of wonderful steel guitar courtesy of Chris Funk. "Shiny" is the best of the lot, sporting a beautiful melody and warmly lilting beat. "Angel, Won't You Call Me?" is slightly more up-tempo and possesses great potential, but at less than three minutes, it feels oddly truncated, as if the band members lost interest just as they were building toward a resounding finish. "Apology Song," the appended sixth number about a stolen bike and the guilt-wracked friend entrusted to watch over it, is fun but vacuous; one of the least essential cuts the band's ever committed to tape.

The Tain, of course, reveals the Decemberists in full command of both craft and thematic intent. In this very loose interpretation of the tale of heroic young Cú Chulainn, forced to defend Ulster single-handedly (the other warriors have fallen victim to a curse) against Queen Medb's marauding forces, Meloy and his fellow Decemberists cannily avoid rehashing the widely circulated legend. Rather, we get impressions of the events, as opposed to a more straightforward recounting, across its five sections. Meloy's incredibly elusive allusions include such references as "Charlemagne in a motorcade" and "The mirror's soft silver tain / Reflects our last and birthing hour." Lyrically, The Tain is too brief to adequately encompass the full scope of the Cattle Raid storyline, though select inferences are made, from chariots and sows to the divine nature of the never explicitly named Cú Chulainn's origins. But by making abstract rather than literal references, the Decemberists provide their own spin on the material, and can hide behind a cloak of artistic obliquity should experts on the work question their familiarity with the source material.

Musically, The Tain manages to convey an epic sense of betrayal, struggle, triumph and loss. Most impressively, the band does so by taking its cues from a wildly diverse number of influences. We hear the Decemberists come close to the ballbreaking sludge rock of Black Sabbath during the first part, Iron Butterfly-style heavy metal in the second, while the third and fourth sections find the band resorting to their more familiar organ and string arrangements before closing the circle with a thunderous charge at the end. It's a bravura performance, seamlessly interwoven, never once feeling disjointed or haphazardly stitched together. Part Four provides a good example of this unity: With Rachel Blumberg taking over vocal and writing duties, Jenny Conlee's accordion abruptly emerges and, by all reasoning, shouldn't work against the serious, bombastic backdrop. But it succeeds by inserting much-needed levity into the portentous proceedings -- as if a carnival barker suddenly strode onstage during a Wagner opera, encouraging people to step right up and see the singing Valkyries. Thus, the Decemberists nimbly sidestep any charges of self-serious, vanity-project indulgence, and liven up the proceedings at the same time.

The Tain, then, is a logical progression for the Decemberists, a band that has rapidly evolved its sound from the comparatively simple songcraft heard on Five Songs into some of the most interesting and exciting sonic territory being explored in the world of pop-rock today.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
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