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The Decemberists - Picaresque CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

3.60 | 70 ratings

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4 stars I have no doubt the title of this album was derived from the opening song. “The Infanta” supposedly refers to the coronation of an early 19th century infant Spanish princess, but there are lyrical references that speak of the queen’s barrenness, of a child found among the reeds at the water’s edge, and of pachyderms and other references (including instrumental ones) that hint at an Indian theme.

A picaresque story is a traditional tale about a person of lower caste or poverty who struggles against a corrupt or baseless society. This pretty much describes at least half the characters in Colin Meloy’s songs. His protagonists are all engaged in The Struggle, and are often consumed in cruel and terrible ways as a result of their being simply in the wrong life at the wrong time. The characters in the Decemberists’ tales are all like Voltarie’s Candide (which is an awesome novel, by the way). No doubt that book has been a heavy influence in Meloy’s writing.

This album was recorded in a small, decrepit church hall that the band borrowed and turned into a studio. This was the session that really launched their experimentation with unusual instrumentation such as the hurdy-gurdy, tamtam, toy drums, weird horns, and a small pipe organ. The sessions were sweaty and disorganized and improvisational, and there are several great videos of them on youTube as well as on their recent DVD.

The Jealous Butcher vinyl release of this album also includes the outtakes/b-sides EP Picaresquities, but that isn’t included in either CD version.

“We Both Go Down Together” has become a concert staple for the band, and tells the tale of the young socially mismatched couple whose sad fate is told on the tune “Lesley Anne Levine” off the ‘Castaways and Cutouts’ album. This is the prequel and the two lovers are in their ‘us against the world’ phase. Petra Hayden makes her debut on this album and this song, playing violin as well as providing the gorgeously bored harmonizing vocals that complement Meloy’s so well.

The band slips back into familiar musical territory on the slow and acoustic “Eli, the Barrow Boy”, a poor sod who hawks coal and flowers from an old cart wandering the town all day. He is found drowned of course, since few characters actually remain alive in a Decemberists song. My oldest son does a version of this on guitar when he plays coffee houses sometimes that can cause me to burst into uncontrollable sobbing. Not very seemly for a middle-aged man in a dark coffee house full of young college types, but the hell with them really.

The band keeps wandering musically with “The Sporting Life”, in this case dangerously close to early nineties pop sounds. This one will appeal to hooligans (er, soccer fans): the poor kid in the tale is in the midst of choking in a big way in the championship game of a soccer season with his father and girlfriend and teammates and coach all smothering him in the pressure. If you know Meloy you know how this turns out, and you know it’s not well.

Another acoustic number is “The Bagman's Gambit”, and with it the sordid story of a government agent (CIA? Military?) during the Cold War whose Russian lover is captured as a spy. This one is uncomfortably familiar territory for me, having been stationed as a U.S. Marine on a base in California in the 1980s when two Marine embassy guards were brought in for courts-martial for having given access to sensitive documents to their Russian lovers. Life imitates art, or vice versa. I think both of them are probably still in prison – there’s a Google moment.

“From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)”… well, this one is pretty self-explanatory. Sort of a “Mr. Postman, bring me a dream…” but told by a sad young lass whose man has been lost at sea. Not my favorite Meloy tune, but admittedly consistent for him.

“16 Military Wives” became a notorious video distributed on the peer-sharing network bitTorrent (by the band themselves no less!), and delivers one of the peppiest anti-war, anti-aggression, anti-imperialism tunes you will probably ever hear. Self-deprecation certainly seems to become Americans, at least in the form of their artists and social commentators. This also became the title track for an EP by the band.

There are too many characters and plot-lines to figure out on “The Engine Driver”. Do yourself a favor and give it a shot yourself, it will keep you occupied for hours. Another largely acoustic number, not really exceptional except that Hayden is once again stunning in her barely-interested vocal delivery. It really has to be an acquired talent to give so much to a song while trying so hard to appear not to care.

“On the Bus Mall” is tied to “Grace Cathedral Hill” from the ‘Castaways and Cutouts’ album as far as the story-line continuity, but I really can’t tell if this is chronologically before or after that scene. A traveling song about two runaway lovers staying in a crappy roadside hotel near the highway, sleeping in, and generally making bad and irreversible decisions as they run away in each other’s arms and head-long into disaster.

The band’s most well-known song to-date is on this album – “The Mariner's Revenge Song”. This becomes something of a carnival in concert, and fans generally go almost as nuts as the band themselves do. Check this out on youTube – there are several videos and live clips floating around all over the place.

And the album ends with the softest and most languid acoustic number “Of Angels And Angles”. Kind of a nonsense song, but brings things to a quiet close quite well.

This is not my favorite Decemberists album, but it is the one where the band proved they could deliver unusual music with complex, interesting, and very engaging lyrics that tell tales of people just like some of us. This is music that you have to discover slowly, and some people just won’t get into it. If you are a romantic though, the mushy type that cries during sad movies, you will almost surely get into this album and this band. Four stars.


ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |


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