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The Decemberists - Picaresque CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

3.61 | 72 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars "I was meant for the stage", sang Colin Meloy at the end of his band's previous album ("Her Majesty", 2003): a true enough statement, but offered without much conviction at the time. It was on this next effort that he finally unleashed the full range of that instinctive theatricality, dragging his bandmates willingly behind him into the glare of the footlights.

The new album cover was even framed in a proscenium arch, around a portrait of the band taking a curtain call in amateur community theatre costumes and make-up (guitarist Chris Funk's portrayal of a tamarack tree merits a special ovation). The album itself was assembled in a former Baptist church, rented by the group and transformed into a grassroots recording studio, surrounded by an odd assortment of flotsam not typically found in a house of worship (outside Portland, Oregon at any rate): scattered toys, stuffed animals, life-size mannequin parts, even a swing suspended from the transept.

Hardly your typical recording environment, to say the least. In effect it was more stage than studio, with the music taking shape accordingly, invigorated by some equally offbeat instrumentation: hurdy-gurdys; dulcimers; banjos; even a (!!) shofar. Meloy's fertile Anglophile imagination was meanwhile more than ever pre-occupied with fictions lifted from 19th century penny-dreadfuls, never more effectively than in the haunting acoustic guitar and accordion balladry of "Eli, the Barrel Boy" and "My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)", two English folk tragedies Charles Dickens might have enjoyed humming along with.

Even the more contemporary songs live up to the album's colorful title. "The Sporting Life" should strike a nerve in any half-pint athletic failure; "16 Military Wives" is a lively satire of geopolitical hubris and media distortion; and "The Bagman's Gambit" marked a narrative departure for Meloy: an ambitious but overlong Cold War melodrama, sadly undermined by its lack of momentum. Only the R.E.M. rip-off "We Both Go Down Together" (a.k.a. "Losing My Religion, Again") sounds out of place: an obvious bid for mainstream radio airplay.

And then there's "The Mariner's Revenge Song": nine definitive minutes of Decemberist whimsy, in retrospect the quintessential Colin Meloy song-story, only later devolving into an obligatory ritual on their concert playlists. The tale itself, relating an orphan's lifelong quest for vengeance against the rake who drove his mother to an early grave, is a lot of fun (for at least the first dozen replays). Better yet, it was recorded completely live in their makeshift mission studio, brought to vivid acoustic life in a single take.

After two warm-up albums, this was where The Decemberists finally realized their potential and resolved their contradictions: part Indie Pop complacency; part Folk Rock pastiche; part Music Hall burlesque...with a very, very small kernel of Prog buried deep in the mix. Not bad, for a third act dénouement.

Neu!mann | 4/5 |


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