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The Decemberists - Castaways And Cutouts CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

3.58 | 63 ratings

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The Whistler
Prog Reviewer
3 stars (California 3.5)

For a first album, this is a surprisingly solid entry. Maybe not quite as strong as some would have you believe (not that the 5 Songs EP was as weak as they’d have you believe either), but a solid, solid first entry. The band knows what it wants to do, or at least, they THINK they know what they want to do; they’re just not quite sure of how to do it.

The one-two punch opener of “Leslie Anne Levine” and “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” is a solid block of sedate acoustic guitar and accordion (okay, “Architect” has an organ instead, but it’s still sedate). Both are easy going folk numbers, neither is meant to be particularly happy so they’re kinda dreary and droney, but each is twisty enough to get by with boring anyone, so, nothing wrong there.

“July, July” is the band’s first real attempt at a radio hit. You can tell because there’s a buildup intro and some repeated phrases that you’re supposed to sing along to and everything. The good is that Colin can already write a catchy pop song...the bad is that the band is still in “lazy folk” mode, so no one sounds like they particularly want to play/sing a radio hit, and I remain unconvinced that July, July honestly IS that strange.

Still, the next two songs prove that the real attraction of the band is not radio staples. “A Cautionary Song” presents a pretty dreadful picture of what your mother HAS to do when you’re asleep, all to this plodding, strum and drang musical backing that sounds like a group of depressed eighteenth century sailors. In short, a fantastic song for novelty’s sake, and a fantastic song for proving that The Decemberists honestly do care about more than radio hits.

But the best is yet to come; “Odalisque” is the first bona fide Decemberists classic ever put to plastic. The song contains in its five minutes all the pomp and stomp of a real prog epic. Opening like a slow paced funeral march, the song quickly evolves into a organ and guitar backed foot stomper. I love the part where the entire rhythm section starts playing that rippling organ riff behind the quiet menace of Colin’s lyrics. All in all, the best song on the album, and proof that the band wasn’t afraid to play challenging material.

Why oh why oh why then, Mr. Meloy, do we follow up the fantastic “Odalisque” with “Cocoon?” It has something to do with Vesuvius, I suppose, and it’s another slow paced folksy dreamy number, and there are some very pretty moments buried within the tune. But it’s longer than “Odalisque,” and not nearly as epic, which leaves me feeling a bit tired after it’s over. “Grace Cathedral Hill” is a little better— it’s shorter for one thing. It’s also a little more internally varietous, which is nice, but all in all, nothing you haven’t heard before.

Aha! But I love this next number, the oft overlooked “Legionnaire’s Lament.” It pretty much manages to do everything that “July, July” wanted to do in the way of a catchy, stompy pop song...only, you know, succeed. The song is hilarious, and the band sounds like they want to play it as much as I want to hear it. Not to mention there’s a ridiculous solo that proves that the accordion should stick to rhythm. Still funny though; it was actually once my choice for best song on the album.

Not so much for “Clementine,” I should add. That’s just kind of a folky droner. Skip it. Still, makes a nice set up for the big, BIG, epic finisher, “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade.” It’s far from my favorite Decemberists epic, of course, but let me just state that the first thirty seconds of the song, where the guitars and cello are playing by themselves, are beautifully sad. When the drums kick in and Colin starts singing, it’s not bad neither. It’s probably a little too long, like most things on the album, but it’s made up of enough parts, and they’re all so nicely linked, that I can’t really complain. Nice finisher.

So what do we have? We have a first album which finds the band not quite sure of itself, which is understandable. I could hardly blame them; first album jitters and all. From start to finish, the album presents almost a single psychological strand: this is dream folk, rather than dream pop (there. I think I just invented that term; you can thank me later). It’s a fifty minute lush voyage down acoustic and slide guitars. This has its good and bad sides.

On the one hand, a fifty minute voyage of solid dream folk is going to take its drain on those who like a little variety in their records. What’s nice to see, however, is that Colin and the gang can write memorable, intelligent tunes already, and they’re making a good effort at building them up and making them sound like real music...they just don’t know how to PLAY them yet. Every now and again, something is so energetic that it can overcome this (“Legionnaire,” “Odalisque”). But sadly, more often than not, you’re left with a pleasant, folksy mush that sounds like some acoustic leftovers from Meddle- era Pink Floyd (“Cocoon,” “California One”).

But still, dream folk is dream folk (as I’ve just decided...I think), and if neither of those terms alone can frighten you, then together I’m sure you can find some use for this disc. You know, you could study it carefully, or use it as background music, or listen to it until you get sick of the good parts, and then use it like a Frisbee until you feel like you want to hear “The Legionnaire’s Lament” again.

The Whistler | 3/5 |


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