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The Decemberists

Prog Folk

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4 stars “She's a salty little pisser, with your cock in her kisser - but now she's a will of her own”

March 4th of 2004 heralded Portland, Oregon based band THE DECEMBERISTS’ interim EP ‘The Tain’ released on Acuarela Discos, taking its place in between the 2003 album ‘Her Majesty’ and the 2005 recording of ‘Picaresque’. ‘The Tain’ is an 18-minute epic song split into five chapters all based on the Irish myth “Táin Bó Cúailnge” or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley.” Each chapter is marked by changes in overall tone, rhythm, pace, and speaker. Part I through III display lead singer Colin Meloy’s voice as different characters exclusively, except for part III which use chorus-like waifs. The album was recorded over a four day period with the aid of Chris Walla of DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE during which the band members reportedly slept on the floor in between takes—briefly reminiscent of extremist bands such as SET FIRE TO FLAMES or A SILVER MT. ZION.

Part I of ‘The Tain’ begins with the narration courtesy of “The Crone” marked by Chris Funk’s precarious guitar craft creating an overall languid and leisurely tone. Part II sees the immergence of Rachel Blumberg on drums and some rather discordant electric guitar. The content of Part II seems to recount a battle scene where the character “Husband” and “Captain” are sung again by Meloy. Part III brings the tone down again allowing a cello-backed folk funk—and by funk I mean depression-formed atmosphere— which slowly builds with the introduction of “The Waifs” in partnership of “The Soldier” who seems to be Ulster hero “Cúchulainn.” Part III eventually merges into Part IV as a waltz accompanied by accordion and other gypsy instrumentation. Part IV is also marked by the change from Meloy’s lead singing to Blumberg’s mellow, childlike incantations which are at time paralleled by male accompaniment. Part IV gradually fades into dissonance while cadence style drums usher in Part V which reintroduces the riffage of Part I but this time on lanky electric guitar. The final part of the 18-minute epic ends with an almost worn out repetition of a compressed Part I verse.

If ever one needed affirmation of the Decemberists’ status as a progressive folk standard-bearer, they need not look further than ‘The Tain’. At times the album is markedly amateur in its attempt to be something greater than it really is, and in comparison to later works such as ‘Picaresque’and ‘The Crane Wife’, ‘The Tain’ is less of a full on effort though it remains just as equally compelling. ‘The Tain’ is comparable to works like GREEN CARNATION’s ‘Light of Day, Day of Darkness’ and TV ON THE RADIO’s ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’, if not in length, then by the sense of epic musical storytelling.

‘The Tain’ offers an undeniable wealth of progressive folk musicality, though some may be compelled to argue. ProgArchives defines progressive rock as having “Long compositions, sometimes running over 20 minutes, with intricate melodies and harmonies that require repeated listening to grasp…often described as epics”; “Lyrics that convey intricate and sometimes impenetrable narratives, covering such themes as science fiction, fantasy, history, religion, war, love, and madness” and “subdivi[ision] into movements in the manner of a classical suite” all standards which are met by this album. This album also offers many instruments decidedly culture-based reminiscent of FAIRPORT CONVENTION such as the accordion, glockenspiel, bottles, toy instruments, and mandolins as a nod to the pre-Christian Irish setting. But perhaps one of the most “folk” parts of the album are Colin Meloy’s workings of the narrative itself which is still yet loosely based on the actual story. Each movement is distinct in its poetic verse and intensely impacting verbiage compliments of a creative writing major taking poetic license at certain caricatures within the story.

Taking into account the time, manner, and state of experience of the band in which the album was recorded I give ‘The Tain’ 4 out of 5 stars due to its clear cut progressive folk storytelling, songwriting and instrumentalization while remaining entertaining throughout as well as having a healthy replay value both in meditative or cognitive moods or simply while “hanging out” in the car on the way to an event. The album does suffer, however, from less-than-perfect sound recording as well as its identifiably slapdash recording quality—possibly explaining its pervasiveness on college stations in my city—but these factors do not entirely detract from this recording and I would like to see it re-released with perhaps a series of other cuts in a remastered version.

“They settled dust in your hair to watch you shake and shout it out.

With our armaments bared, we shed our bags and travel alls.”

Report this review (#121846)
Posted Saturday, May 12, 2007 | Review Permalink
4 stars One of the essential parts of the band's catalog. Based around a Black Sabbath inspired riff, the five parts flow effortlessly throughout the track's 18 minutes. The entire track is up there with the band's better material lyrically as well as musically. Certainly not flawless, but one of the more worthwhile EP's I've listened to.

Recommended to any fan of The Decemberists, as well as anyone into the Prog Folk sub-genre here looking for something different. Assuredly one of their best tracks. However a better starting point for this band would be either Picaresque or The Crane Wife.

Report this review (#124177)
Posted Thursday, May 31, 2007 | Review Permalink
Prog Folk Researcher
3 stars Colin Meloy takes his own stab at the 2,500 year-old story of Táin Bó Cúailnge with this 2004 release EP. This is an unusual record in that it consists of a single, unbroken eighteen and a half minute track. This was released in Spain between the band’s second and third studio albums. Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla produced this and the band’s subsequent ‘Picaresque’ release, and does a great job of drawing out the band’s creative side and harnessing their instrumental experimentation into a cohesive effort.

This isn’t as faithful or comprehensive a telling of the story of the Táin as Horslips managed on their album of the same name thirty years prior, but it is interesting in the difference of approach. While Horslips intended to deliver a respectful and accurate retelling of the tale, the Decemberists are only interested in the story as a colorful and ancient literary work. I don’t see or hear any evidence they approached this with any sense of cultural reverence or anything like that, although considering Meloy comes from an area of Montana, U.S.A. that has a heavily Irish population, it is certainly possible that this is a story he learned as a child. More likely though he picked up on this while studying literature in college, and this would be consistent with the many other literary works he has morphed into indie-prog classics.

The Decemberists version of the tale became somewhat notorious when the lyric “she’s a salty little pisser with your cock in her kisser” was used to paint a picture of the queen Medb. Probably not historically accurate, but certainly colorful.

This version also strays from the older Horslips version by presenting a much more abstract view of the story, with some lyrics seeming to take a great deal of literary license. Musically this is a bit off-kilter at times as well, such as in the third stanza where the glockenspiel, Hammond organ, and accordion make this sound more like a Jewish klezmer polka than an Irish jig. There is also quite a bit of very indie-sounding vocal/rhythm interplay, especially toward the end, that perhaps takes just a bit away from the mystique of the story.

But in the end this is a very engaging bit of music that has been well-received by the band’s fans, and brings awareness to an ancient and fascinating story that might otherwise have languished a bit longer in the folk cloisters of Irish traditionalists. And I think that’s what Meloy’s goal tends to be when he drudges some of these old stories up and reinvents them as modern folk music. And good for him; a very decent effort, not essential, but good nonetheless. Three stars and well recommended.


Report this review (#127621)
Posted Thursday, July 5, 2007 | Review Permalink
3 stars This second EP from The Decemberists consists of only one epic song (divided in five parts) which is frankly on the heavy edge of the folk genre (opening and closing parts).

Heavy riff, almost doom in the early babblings, this piece of music turns out to be a more "Decemberists" song and features languish vocals and slow paced music. The whole topped by the melancholic voice of their front man (Colin Meloy).

Fine and dark passages (with some strings in the background) do bring a strange atmosphere and I have to admit that it is with quite a pleasure that I listen to this long song (almost twenty minutes), having endured a weak experience with their previous album ("Her Majesty").

This is a much diversified epic, with some fine stroke of inspiration (the short accordion part for instance between Rachel vocal part). This long song is by no means boring and on the contrary it offers mixed atmospheres.

The closing part being another heavier one, just as it had begun.

It is with some relief that I welcome this EP. At least, the band hasn't forget their very good song writing of their debut. Let's hope they keep on surfing this positive wave.

Three stars.

Report this review (#182335)
Posted Saturday, September 13, 2008 | Review Permalink
The Whistler
4 stars (The Tain IV.V)

I've been struggling to write an intro to this review of The Tain. I want to really hammer home the concept that this is the album that saved modern rock 'n roll for me. Without The Tain, I wouldn't have taken Radiohead seriously, tried out Muse, realized that there was more to modern prog than a bunch of heavy metal rejects or purposeful weirdos. And, the punch line is, I bought it because it was like three bucks! It's just an EP! But it's more than a mere EP's solid gold. This is where The Decemebrists, long since having dabbled in artistic pomp, come of age. This is music like no one has made since 1975. This is...The Tain.

The Tain opens with the slow, slinky, sexy acoustic riffage of...uh...well, "The Tain Part I." What do you want? It's Sabbathy, they say, and I can see why. The riff itself, which slides up and down the guitar neck at will, and is augmented at the instrumental breaks by guitar, bass, blocky organ and snappy drumming. The result would be enough to scare any number of small dogs. This quickly breaks into "Tain Part II," which is, I guess, kind of Deep Purpley. Or maybe it's more Sabbathy. The point is, the riff is much simpler and faster, but it allows the band to work more effectively around it, stretching out within the less confining structure.

Sadly, it's over before you can say jackknife (an odd difficulty; for something that's almost twenty minutes long, certain sections of The Tain seem awfully short). Still, "Part III" doesn't disappoint. A very pretty, pastoral number, with a very lilting refrain and a cello spot in the middle that approaches bleeding gorgeousness, the center spot of The Tain creates a pleasant counterpoint to the hamfistedly heavy first sections of the record (it might actually be my favorite part).

It's only with "The Tain Part IV" that a single sections overstays its welcome a tad. And, hey, even if this one part is a TAD, just a tad, overlong, it's still based on a catchy, pleasant folk melody, and features lovely, cold singing by...some chick who isn't Colin Meloy! So you can't really call it a boring droner. Not that you'd want to, it's a satisfying section that fits right in with the rest of the song (and dig those goofy instrumental breaks!).

What I find most amazing is that "Part V" actually manages to cap the whole thing off in a deserving way. It's a pure rush, jamming the speed and looseness of the second part, but managing to retain the noble qualities and riff of the first part, eventually bleeding into a towering, cathartic choral, with twenty Colins layered on top of each other. Or maybe it's like three Colins, but you get my point. The very end is also fantastic: each instrument getting a take the opening riff, before dissolving into just Colin and the acoustic. Now why does that ending sound familiar? OH YEAH. It's how Thick as a Brick ends...

And, to be perfectly honest, the twenty minutes of The Tain play like the long lost third side of Tull's infamous record. And I mean that?when I say that no one has made an album (excuse me, EP) like this since 1975, I wasn't kidding. This is classic prog quality. It can't quite crack the five star point for me since there aren't any kickass solos, and there's not a lot of emotional depth to the thing...I mean, dude, it's a twenty minute song about stealing cows. What do you want?

But it's got pretty much everything else in favor for it. The flow is magnificent; each section bleeds brilliantly into the next, to the point that it wasn't until "Part IV" that I even realized that they probably spliced recordings together, rather than just do a single long take in the studio. Each section is also brilliantly written and memorable, and even if there aren't too many soul shattering solos, not an instrument is out of place across the entire recording. Not much emotional depth perhaps, but at the right moments, very atmospheric.

And a word about the story. Some of my colleagues seem a bit disappointed that The Decemberists have chosen to do a more abstract telling of this Irish founding myth than The Horslips' seminal version. I ask, why? I find this "less faithful" version of the story an interesting counterpoint to the 1973 album. Some things to notice include the fact that the battle--perhaps the entire point of The Tain--is absolutely bypassed, snuck cautiously between Parts "II" and "III." Also, does anyone else get the feeling that "Part IV" is told from the perspective of a storyteller relating the tale, giving the entire album an existentialist, perhaps metaphysical feel? Hmm...

The only real fault you can drag against the album is that it's a little too short; there's not a lot of wiggle room for expansion within the five-plus-themes/18-and-a-half minutes of the EP (oh, by the way, when I say the only real fault of an album is that it should be LONGER...that's a good sign).

If Radiohead snobbily experimented their way into prog, and The Mars Volta druggedly jammed their way in, then the Decemberists are more like I and you. They pretty much just picked up their instruments, steadied themselves, and clubbed their way into prog rock, whether it liked it or not. The result is The Tain. As I said, the band had experimented with longer song formats and multi part suits before, but this humble EP sounds like nothing the band put out before. It was a turning point, paving the way for more complex, or at least better thought out, things to come. But it's more than a historical hinge; The Tain has a quiet charm that never quite fades away, and for that reason, it shall always hold a special place in my heart. It is a pity that this EP seems to sneak by without making much of a name for itself; you'd be doing yourself a tremendous disservice if you let this one get away.

Report this review (#207922)
Posted Saturday, March 21, 2009 | Review Permalink
4 stars THE DECEMBERISTS are so knowingly clever, so refreshingly different to the run-of-the-mill inconsequentialities we normally get served up as music, that I can't help liking them. When they combine that with sheer musical genius, as they do with this EP, they are impossible to resist.

This EP is a single eighteen minute song, telling the tale of Queen Medb's cattle raid on Ulster, focusing on the hero CuChulainn's defense of the sacred bull. This will not be immediately obvious from the lyrics! For most listeners this will be somewhat off-putting: obscure lyrics demanding careful distillation are, in this instant age, a handicap rather than an asset. But COLIN MELOY will have it his own way, and tells his story with the use of metaphor and allusion.

A short-cut to understanding this song is to watch the video on Pitchfork Media. The video is captioned, explaining the major events of the story, and definitely improves the listening experience. A link to this video can be found on The Tain's wikipedia entry.

The music is superb. Opening and closing with a tritone riff straight from the BLACK SABBATH lexicon, the song moves from hard rock to folk to traditional Irish music and back again in five parts. Each part suits the music to the lyrics, and the lead in to the progressive finale is brilliant, as CuChulainn kills his childhood friend and the futility of war is laid bare. Yes, there is a message, and it's a cracking one.

This EP gives us the first hint of what is to come for this band. THE DECEMBERISTS will not be pigeon-holed, and use whatever style best suits the lyric. This, friends, is progressive rock as it was meant to be. I can't recommend this highly enough. It is eclectic enough to appeal to listeners far beyond the borders of prog-folk. 'The Tain' is as close to a five-star record as it gets, losing the fifth star only because of the obtuseness of the lyrics.

Report this review (#216680)
Posted Wednesday, May 20, 2009 | Review Permalink
Eclectic Prog Team
4 stars This eighteen-and-a-half minute EP from The Decemberists consists of one track in five parts, and is an off-color and loose interpretation of the Irish mythological tale Táin Bó Cúailnge. It begins and ends with the same riff, which is initially an acoustic guitar only, but as in the end, consists of several instruments, each taking a turn playing and playing it together. The music integrates indie-rock, polka-like cabaret, a cappella, lovely acoustic music, and all manner of styles. Certain parts are a less comfortable, but perhaps they are meant to be. Although it failed to grab my attention immediately (as almost every album from The Decemberists has succeeded in doing, it eventually won me over. For fans of the band, this EP is a no-brainer, and may very well find favor with those who argue that the band is not progressive rock at all. For this latter group, I would encourage them to give this a listen, as it may appeal to them, since it lacks the general accessibility the pervades much of The Decemberists' work.
Report this review (#230138)
Posted Wednesday, August 5, 2009 | Review Permalink
4 stars Next to "The Hazards of Love", this 19-minute EP is the most overtly Progressive item in the entire Decemberists catalogue, presenting a continuous, five-part suite loosely based on the same ancient Irish legends that had previously inspired the popular (and more authentic) 1973 HORSLIPS album of the same name.

This new version was recorded in 2004, in between the more traditional Decemberist indie-folk albums "Her Majesty" and "Picaresque", but sounding unlike either of them. What's immediately apparent at first exposure is the heightened level of musical aggression, revealing an unexpected iron fist inside Colin Meloy's usual wrap of "gingham, taffeta, cotton and silk". The band's quirky leader was still singing wistfully of thistledown beds in forest and fen, but for the first time on a Decemberist album the electric guitars were louder than the ubiquitous accordions and dulcimers.

The EP as a result rocks harder than anything the group had ever attempted, but without sacrificing that unique, theatrical Decemberist flair. There are moments (in Parts II and V) when a shrieking heavy metal headbanger would not have sounded out of place, instead of Meloy's typically fey, adenoidal tenor.

And yet the dramatic ebb and flow of the music itself is closer to the quintessential sound of old-school Progressive Rock. The arrangements and production are entirely modern, but the spirit is pure 1970's, evoked in the anachronistic vibrato of Jenny Colin's electric piano and the blazing grind of her Hammond organ. Further stylistic color is provided by the additional cellos, occasional acoustic bass, and massed female backing vocals heard in Part III.

Anyone looking for a compact, comprehensive entry into the mind of Colin Meloy will find "The Tain" an ideal beginner's sampler. And for longtime fans it's the perfect companion to the later "Hazards" album.

Report this review (#1372006)
Posted Monday, February 23, 2015 | Review Permalink

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