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The Decemberists - Picaresque CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

3.60 | 78 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars I come to Picaresque by way of Hazards of Love and The Crane Wife...not perhaps the best approach, travelling back in time, given that the more recent albums are very near perfection.

Picaresque and I do not immediately come to terms. Infanta, driven by a sort of martial drumming, is not really to my liking. I understand it's a fan favorite, but still I'm not awed. We Go Down Together is a big step up...would've made an excellent opener, but for its indie-rock groove, the subtle background (mandolin?) accenting the lyrics.

Then a fairer wind blows. Eli the Barrow Boy is pure prog-folk, reminiscent of the very best that Traffic or Fairport could have mustered in their primes. The instrumentation is sparse but perfect...acoustic guitar, augmented just at the right points with accordion.

The Sporting Life, a decent little tune, is somewhat of a letdown. The band is more in the indie-pop groove here, the song sounding like something the Lemonheads might have recorded some 20 years earlier. I almost expect to hear ol' Simon & Garfunkels' Mrs. Robinson as the next song. But instead we get The Bagman's Gambit, again another acoustic number which, though eventually picking up some steam, does not really ever take off.

The album begins to improve with From My Own True Love. This is a folkish song, incredibly melodic, with again perfect instrumentation to carry the melodies. There's that thumping bass drum, the nice harmonies, the sad accordion: Please Mr. Postman, brought into the new decade.

16 Military Wives is pure social commentary sung over yer standard rock beat. Another fan favorite, sing-a-long-wise.

Up to this point, I have to admit I am neither aurically nor emotionally in 'The Crane Wife' territory here. And then pure magic occurs.

The emotional core of this album is The Engine Driver. Beginning with ringing acoustic guitar, then evolving into that solid mid-tempo rock beat, the song unfolds to a melody that is near perfection for its subject. Colin Meloy has a unique ability to express the yearning and ache of the heart, both lyrically and vocally, and I'm surprised he did not pull out the pedal-steel for this song. I can assure you, any astute, guitar-toting college freshman has this song in his repertoire. Hell, I've got it in mine, just because it's so damned beautiful. Backing female vocals vary between disinterested to almost taunting. I believe the lyrics represent Meloy's attempt to come to terms with his past, the American West, specifically Montana. Take a look at the jobs: engine driver; high wire lineman. These are Montana jobs, and they don't last long. Hence the requirement for a money lender. "If you don't love me let me go." At this point, finally, Picaresque becomes something beyond the ordinary. I don't mean to get all weepy, but Jenny Conlee's solo on this one is a thing of incredible beauty, somehow melodically recalling every last busted relationship I've ever had in my life in the American West: "If you don't love me let me go."

The song morphs into On The Bus Mall, another indie-folk song which again immediately recalls the Lemonheads, and in fact, at least in terms of rhythm, Mrs. Robinson. Pure magic. I gotta wonder how much of this is planned by the band, how much is unconscious, and how much I'm just reading into this. Point is, by now, any listener with knowledge of the last, um, 30 years of rock, is fully involved.

I rarely get to The Mariner's Revenge Song, nor Of Angels and Angles, though I understand the former is a fan sing-along favorite, and the latter is a fitting end to the album.

As FZ sez, 'unbind your mind, there is no time'. Make no mistake, this sucker's a 4, event for a prog rocker.

jammun | 4/5 |


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