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The Decemberists

Prog Folk

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The Decemberists Castaways And Cutouts album cover
3.58 | 67 ratings | 12 reviews | 7% 5 stars

Excellent addition to any
prog rock music collection

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Studio Album, released in 2002

Songs / Tracks Listing

1. Leslie Anne Levine (4:12)
2. Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect (4:29)
3. July, July! (2:53)
4. A Cautionary Song (3:08)
5. Odalisque (5:20)
6. Cocoon (6:48)
7. Grace Cathedral Hill (4:28)
8. The Legionnaire's Lament (4:44)
9. Clementine (4:07)
10. California One/Youth And Beauty Brigade (9:50)

Total Time: 49:59

Line-up / Musicians

- Chris Funk / lead & pedal steel guitars, Theremin
- Colin Meloy / guitar, vocals, percussion
- Jenny Conlee / piano, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes, accordion
- Nate Query / upright bass
- Ezra Holbrook / percussion, drums, vocals

Releases information

Artwork: Carson Ellis

CD Hush - HUSH 036 (2002, US)
CD Kill Rock Stars - KRS397 (2003, US)

LP Jealous Butcher - JB-052 (2005, US)

Thanks to ClemofNazareth for the addition
and to Quinino for the last updates
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THE DECEMBERISTS Castaways And Cutouts ratings distribution

(67 ratings)
Essential: a masterpiece of progressive rock music(7%)
Excellent addition to any prog rock music collection(54%)
Good, but non-essential (33%)
Collectors/fans only (6%)
Poor. Only for completionists (0%)

THE DECEMBERISTS Castaways And Cutouts reviews

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Collaborators/Experts Reviews

Review by ClemofNazareth
5 stars Like so many other music fans, I keep buying and playing records because I’m in search of those rare and remarkable few that just reach out and grab me by the doorknockers and pull me up face-to-face and look me square in the eye and say – “HEY!” These are the ones that form an immediate connection, the ones you know you’ll be playing years from now because woven into their fibers will be those memories and emotions they evoke deep inside you, in that place where only the most penetrating of human connections can reach. This is one of those records.

Decemberists founder and singer/songwriter Colin Meloy grew up in Helena, Montana amid the Rocky Mountains of the American northwest. Helena sprung up deep in Indian territory during the latter days of the American Civil War when gold was discovered embedded in the shallow rapids of the Last Chance Gulch. The town became home to the world’s largest per-capita population of millionaires within just a few short years. But most of these men were poorly educated, crass, unprincipled, and lacking in even the most rudimentary social graces – they simply had money. As the U.S. Cavalry fought to secure the area from the native Indian population, the town began to grow in size as well as in diversity: profiteering Jewish and Italian merchants; nomadic Arab shepherds; sociopathic gunslingers and bandits of various and often non-descript lineage; Chinese coulees and Irish skilled laborers to build the railroads of the eastern carpet-bagging tycoons; and pacifist Anabaptist immigrants displaced from ‘bloody Kansas’ and other parts of the American South by the Civil War. This was an amazingly motley crew, each fueled by their own disparate yet intense desires to find the end of their rainbow in this stunningly beautiful but foreboding place.

The history lesson is important to understanding Colin Meloy, and to appreciating where the stories in his music come from, and how they represent a new and progressive kind of American folk music. At this most unlikely spot in the frozen northern wilderness sprang up some of the most garish yet opulent families and monuments ever assembled in one place, fueled largely by the billions of dollars of gold being pulled from the ground by rough-hewn men who nevertheless felt a burning desire to leave their marks. The million-gallon Broadwater Natatorium and 40-acre hotel; the stunning and gothic Saint Helena Cathedral rising tall above the city; the century-old mosque used as a place of worship by Arab shepherds (and later as a brothel); earthy sweat lodges where native peoples paid reverent homage to their natural gods and ancestors; graveyards both opulent and humble, depending on the fortunes of their various inhabitants at the time of their last breaths; and the sprawling and excitingly dangerous Chinatown that wound its way up the side of the mountain which overlooks the town. As a young man wandering the city with a fertile imagination and plenty of ready access to exciting relics of his own history, it was inevitable that Meloy would develop a rich mind’s eye toward the many fascinating and often pitiful, yet always colorful, stories of people engaged in the enterprise of The Struggle. The immediacy of the cultural landmarks and human tapestry of that town’s inhabitants is lost in the more sterile large urban areas on both coasts of this country, or in the puerile suburban stripmall-inhabited sprawl that connects one American metropolis to another. The fertilizer that fuels the creative student of the human experience grows in abundance in this place though, and Meloy got a huge dose growing up there.

He later migrated to the coastal town of Portland, Oregon, which is another locale steeped in history of working and common men and the experiences they endured while living The Struggle. These two locations were hugely influential in helping Meloy develop the gripping sketches contained in these songs.

“Leslie Anne Levine” (reportedly the prequel to “We Both Go Down Together” from the band’s ‘Picaresque’ album) tells the dejected tale of the stillborn child of a 19th century young woman who has been shamed with both a pregnancy out of wedlock and also with the dalliance that caused it, with a man not of her social station in life. In ‘Picaresque’ the lass has pulled back at the last moment from a cliffside where she and her paramour had planned to throw themselves to their deaths. He did, she didn’t, and she was left to bear the child in a ditch and watch it die in the dirt. This is intense stuff, and the band delivers the tale with a respectful sense of compassion and resignation that is almost hypnotic in its eloquence.

With “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” the band describes a young man’s dreaming muses, which include an inept architect whose dream home comes crashing down about he and his spouse’s feet; a German soldier enjoying the fragrance of spring flowers outside the gates of the Birkenau Nazi death camp; and a 16th century philandering Spanish conquistador. Just daydreams, delivered with gentle Fender keyboards, pedal steel, and upright bass besides Meloy’s oddly-formed tenor voice and acoustic guitar.

“July, July!” sounds more like a typical college indie band musically, with straightforward strumming guitar, simple tempo, and harmonizing vocal choruses. But the lyrics demonstrate exactly what I was lumbering on about earlier. This is a young man and his sweetheart sitting at the end of the trail up to his house, looking down on the trail and recalling the tale of her moonshine-running uncle “a crooked French Canadian” being gut-shot and slowly dying on that trail; and realizing that in their old age they will once again be sitting on that trail reminiscing about the very moment captured in the song. Great stuff.

“A Cautionary Tale” is a purely folk-driven yarn of a young mother who prostitutes herself to sailors on passing ships in order to feed her young children. The visuals here are not for the young or faint of heart, but the band delivers the fable in a matter-of- fact and resigned fashion with accordion romps, monotone vocals, and a dirge-like beat that acknowledges the person if not the deeds.

The highlight of the album is “Odalisque”, an almost entirely acoustic number and another tale of a woman of dubious moral temperament who is either being raped, or is subjecting herself to the jollies of vagrant men, and who is also dealing with suicidal intentions and a dead baby. Gruesome stuff, but again told from the perspective of compassion and respect for the human condition.

“Cocoon” has been the subject of much debate among Decemberists fans. This is a piano and acoustic number whose lyrics are in the style of the late Kurt Vonnegut, shifting abruptly in time between the past and present, and in general acknowledging the inevitability of time and circumstance. The setting is a meadow in the shadow of Vesuvius, and represents either a soldier who has survived the Italian campaigns there in World War II, or the famous ancient eruption of that volcanic mountain. Whichever, this is a gentle and reflective tune that leaves one remarkably serene and comforted. Almost as if they were wrapped in a cocoon.

A young Italian man with confusing religious quirks lights a candle in the chapel on “Grace Cathedral Hill” in San Francisco on New Year’s Day, strolls down the street with his sweetheart, picks up a hotdog from a street vendor, and curses the itinerant urchins selling fake religious trinkets nearby. He stares into his Irish lover’s eyes and revels in the peaceful knowledge that he is utterly smitten with her at that very moment. If this one doesn’t get played at a thousand wedding receptions it will be a crime.

“The Legionnaire's Lament” tells the tale of a French Legionnaire on foreign soils, homesick, dejected, and generally feeling sorry for himself. Another charming character sketch spiced with Hammond organ, unassuming bass, and more accordion. This has a remarkable cosmopolitan feel to it despite an obvious pop flavor.

“Clementine” is the quintessential story of young love, forbidden by class and by age but blossoming nonetheless. The young lovers are homeless but unbowed, with that unrealistic but pervasive sense of love-conquering-all that only the young can feel:

“Tell your mom to marry us, a candle to carry us; with cans on our bicycle fenders - so sweet and hilarious –

and we'll find us a home built of packaging foam, that will be there until after we die.”

California One I suppose refers to the Pacific Coast Highway that runs along the western coast of California. Before the buildup of the megalopolises along this highway, it was a great place to take long drives with a lover, relish the salty spray of the ocean, and park to watch the sunset across the water while wiggling your toes in the white sand. “California One Youth and Beauty Brigade” closes this album with an eleven minute celebration of youth and innocence and beauty and nature and the unspoiled past. Acoustic guitar, theremin, simple piano keys, and a soft pedal steel set a distinctly Brian Wilson/Beach Boys mood, and frame this album wonderfully.

Another way too long review, but one that was cathartic to write. The Decemberists represent the new age of folk music for America, and for those of us who grew up on Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash, they may represent the best next hope for recapturing that sense of inclusive appreciation for the tapestry of humanity which once pervaded this country, but has been in preciously short supply in recent years.

Colin Meloy for President!


Review by ZowieZiggy
3 stars If PA statistics are accurate (and I guess they are), prog folfk is only ranked as number ten in my preferred musical genre available for review. Almost ninety reviews for this genre so far. So, I'm neither a huge fan nor a specialist at all.

Still, I can recognize when a band is moving or not. And when paying some attention to The Decemberists, I just can tell you that something special is taking place while listening to their debut album.

Their sound doesn't feature lot of weird instruments (except the theremin), just the classic rock music ones. You know: bass, drums, guitar and piano (OK, there is some accordion as well...).

What is making the diference is the FEELING the band is conveying, this wonderful musical tranquility combined with good vocal harmonies. When you listen to this album that's what comes immediately to mind: a great combination of crafted songs with emotions.

The work might sound easy listening, but do pay attention: crafted compositions and excellent interpretation is what you'll get. Even if most songs are on quiet mood, most have such a so special tint. The most elaborate and my fave one being Odalisque which features a very good organ work.

Not all tracks are thrilling, like the acoustic and mellowish Cocoon, but Castaways And Cutouts is a real breath of fresh air. The album is maybe lacking of deeper true folk roots to get more aknowledgment from eminent reviewers, but it is quite an enjoyable record. Recommended, and not only to (prog) folk enthusiasts.

This band deserves much more exposure and reviews (only one commented review before mine for this album). Wake up guys! It's The Decemberists time. To be fully honest (as usual), I would just say that the second part of the album, after the excellent Odalisque is shy in comparison with the superb start which is pure melody from Leslie Anne Levine to July July.

Castaways And Cutouts is definetely an album that you should listen to. Due to a weaker second part (even if The Legionnaire's Lament is really cool), I would rate this effort with seven out of ten. Just shy of the four stars rating.

Review by UMUR
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Honorary Collaborator
3 stars "Castaways and Cutouts" is the debut full-length studio album by US, Portland, Oregon based indie/folk rock act The Decemberists. The album was released through Hush Records in May 2002. While "Castaways and Cutouts" was the band´s first full-length album release, The Decemberists had already released the "5 Songs" EP in 2001. The band formed in 2000 and had to work hard to earn enough money to record the material for the "5 Songs" (2001) EP (which was recorded in 2 hours), but the EP eventually worked as a demo they could send to labels, and resulted in their signing to Hush Records.

Stylistically the material on "Castaways and Cutouts" is relatively simple vers/chorus based folk oriented rock. The emphasis is on the strong, melodic, and melancholic vocal melodies and the organic instrumentation. The lyrics are sometimes weird, but in a nice humourous way. Colin Meloy´s warm voice and pleasant delivery are the center of the music. Most tracks on the album are about 4-5 minutes long but the closing track "California One/Youth And Beauty Brigade" is a 9:50 minutes long composition which is a bit more experimental in sound and style than the remaining material. It´s basically just two songs merged into one though, so we´re not exactly being treated to anything aimed at a progressive rock audience.

The musicianship is top notch on all posts. The Decemberists are a well playing unit creating a warm and organic sound. Acoustic guitars, upright bass, drums, pedal steel, theremin, Hammond organ, piano, Rhodes piano, and accordion are the instruments used on the album. The organic and warm production job further enhances the "feel good" yet slightly melancholic atmosphere of the music. So upon conclusion "Castaways and Cutouts" is a good quality debut album by The Decemberists. A few more experimental ideas would have made the album a bit more interesting and less "safe", but a 3 star (60%) rating is still deserved.

Review by The Whistler
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.

Review by russellk
4 stars With this, their first full-length album, THE DECEMBERISTS move closer to the rich territory they mine in later work. 'Castaways and Cutouts' is a perfect title for this collection of sorrowful vignettes of the less fortunate, beginning with the girl whose "mother birthed me far too soon/born at nine and dead at noon" (Leslie Ann Levine) and moving to cynics tired of life: "And we are vagabonds/we travel without seatbelts on/we live this close to death" (Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect). Within moments of playing this album for the first time the careful listener realises they are in the presence of something more insightful, more beautiful than the average rock offering. This is mature, this is sharp, this is literary, this has meaning.

What it is not is prog rock. Not yet. At this point THE DECEMBERISTS were concerned with fusing alt-rock with country and folk sensibilities. There are elements of interest for the prog listener, foremost among them the restrained but glorious application of the hammond organ by JENNY CONLEE. The album offers upbeat pop numbers such as 'July, July!' and immediately counterpoints with the folky, darkly humorous 'A Cautionary Tale', ostensibly about how your mother spends her nights in order to keep you in collard greens. 'Odalisque', the stand-out track, is even darker and has none of the humour, but gives us a glimpse of the band's future direction, offering musical and lyrical complexity, often with dysfunctional sexuality as the focus. MELOY is a superb storyteller, albeit of the bleakest elements of the human psyche.

A word about COLIN MELOY, the creative impetus of this extraordinary band. His voice is fingernails on the blackboard for some, but I consider his timbre absolutely ideal for the sort of songs he writes. No frills, no adornment, no tremolo, just dead-straight delivery, reminding me of an evil BRUCE COCKBURN. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on the underrated 'Cocoon', where his voice complements a beautiful, gentle song, one of the album's highlights. The COCKBURN comparisons continue on 'Grace Cathedral Hill', as MELOY employs a site-specific slice-of-life lyric, including such gems as "we went to get a hot dog" and "the air, it stunk of fish and beer". 'Legionnaire's Lament' is clever and upbeat but musically limited, sounding startlingly like something THE WATERBOYS might have done in their folk period.

The album finishes with the curious love song 'Clementine' and the extended 'California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade', the latter two songs grafted together, in many ways the title track to this album and the lyrical conclusion to the many themes offered here. It's the band's first prog offering, and is worth listening to. Opening with a riff that could easily have found a home on Led Zeppelin III, we are led along the California coast, lazing in the sun, head fuzzy with wine, only for the pace to change as we are invited to enlist with the Youth and Beauty Brigade. The song captures both the glory and futility of life, the castaways and cutouts of society.

This album is superb. It is only the existence of far stronger material to come from THE DECEMBERISTS that keeps this from being more highly regarded.

Review by Epignosis
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Honorary Collaborator
5 stars If J.D. Salinger wrote progressive rock, this would be it. Some have mentioned how difficult it is to get past Colin Meloy's voice; whereas I took to them immediately, but I can see why some people are put off by them. He has an unmistakable voice, but its more of his pronunciation that I suspect gets under most people's skin (while not a perfect comparison, I liken his inflections to those of George Jones). But the lyrics- oh the lyrics- the lyrics are intense and at times deceptively dark; it is easy to bathe in the delight of the eloquence of the songwriter, but anything more than a cursory hearing will show the grave nature of the subjects. Hiding behind that articulate vocabulary are faces and situations and stories that can rend the heart or even force some to reexamine the dismissive way they may treat the poor, the vagrants, the prostitutes, and the in love. Where the music may be accused of simplicity (something many progressive rock lovers just seem to be above), the words belie any plainness with regards to the songs as a whole. The album is full of reverence for the characters that inhabit it- the good, the ugly, and the morally questionable. This lyrical maturity will continue throughout future albums as the music becomes slightly more developed. And a mysterious line creeps up in several songs that punctures the heart of the woe of humanity: "What can we do?" God knows I've asked that before.

"Leslie Anne Levine" The great way to start this beautifully simplistic album, full of acoustic guitar and accordion. The chord progression is not typical but the melody is catchy, a combination which helps to make the song immediately memorable. It is recognized as the sequel to "We Both Go Down Together," also by The Decemberists.

"Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect" That repetitive electric guitar riff and quavering organ in the background, not to mention the gorgeous vocal melody create the music for a great contemporary soft rock song. The lyrics are utterly amazing in a way I can scarcely articulate. In the first vignette, the narrator describes being a soldier during World War II in the German camp of Burkenau. The solider, declaring his allegiance to the war, says that he would do anything to lie with his love except give up his gun. The titular second verse describes someone with no building skills who dreamt he was an architect, and though his work was unsurpassed, he could not build a banister sturdy enough to maintain his relationship with his romantic partner. The third section describes a womanizing Spaniard who could manipulate women like puppets. But in the end, the protagonist is a man on the run with his girl, so close to death that they refrain from wearing seatbelts. The overall theme that I personally take away from this great song is that while we may imagine ourselves in wonderful and glorious circumstances, we sometimes fail to realize that what we are is much better than what we could be. Hence, it's better this way.

"July, July!" This is about as pop as it gets on this album. It's an upbeat song with a catchy chorus.

"A Cautionary Song" This is very much like something from The Tiger Lillies (a dark cabaret band that relies heavily on accordion and 3/4 time signatures). The lyrics are typical of the horrible nature of human depravity that Meloy effortlessly tackles; in this case, it's about a mother who is forced by sailors to be their whore at night (lest they kill her). As it turns out, this is how she feeds her family.

"Odalisque" This is a progressive rock masterpiece in itself, not just for the amazing music that develops, but for the heart-rending lyrics. Odalisque is literally a virgin female slave in the Ottoman Empire, and an assistant to the concubines.

"Cocoon" This is a perfect song for a rainy day. It's quiet, dreamy, and absolutely perfect to slow dance with. The lyrics are some of the most abstruse, but they seem to represent a stagnant relationship.

"Grace Cathedral Hill" In this beautiful musical portrait of San Francisco, the male protagonist is out with his Irish girl, who doesn't have a good attitude about much. Maybe a motorcycle ride at night would cheer her up. It doesn't. But he loves her even though she cries, and the fellow would do anything for her, including going to the Catholic church.

"The Legionnaire's Lament" The lyrics here seem to a describe a member of the French Foreign Legion enlisted to deal with Algeria in the 1830s, and in that light I love the flippant and anachronistic Frigidaire line. The music is a jaunty rock song with some lovely accordion thrown in for good measure.

"Clementine" A bittersweet song about people who are impoverished but in love. It reminds me of my wife and I talking before we were ever married, describing how we would live in cardboard if only we could be together. It's hard to remember those conversations these days, but this song brings it back to me.

"California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade" The album concludes with a nearly ten minute song that is reminiscent of youth and love. Its sweetness makes one recall a time when there was a warm passion to love, when it was more than just bills, parenting, and arguments. The song adds in an audio clip of Archangel by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. A woman says, "I've heard of ghosts, good ghosts who wander the battlefields at night, guiding soldiers out of danger. If I was such a ghost I would stay so close to you, you could feel my breath on your cheek." Then there is the rally cry of "Youth and Beauty Brigade." By this point the album is over. What can we do? I know- play it again sometime real soon?

Review by horsewithteeth11
4 stars My introduction to The Decemberists was with The Crane Wife, but I'll most likely be reviewing their albums in chronological order.

The Decemberists are not traditional prog by any means. Some would probably even question if they're a prog band, and such questions would probably have been valid before the release of "The Hazards of Love", but I'll talk about that more in the respective review. The music on here is a gentle mix of folk and pop with a few progressive elements here and there. As Epignosis mentioned in his review, some prog fans may be turned off at the sound of Colin Meloy's voice, but I was infatuated with it from the beginning. It's so ethereal, gentle, and yet so dark. The lyrical content is definitely not something that would make for happy bedtime stories for little children. I would imagine that some dark 19th century literature was a big influence on some of Meloy's lyrical topics. On this album, they range from a mother who works as a prostitute to feed her children (A Cautionary Song) to a soldier writing a letter to his lover while in the midst of war (The Legionnaire's Lament). All of which are accompanied by folk-influenced music. The acoustic guitar and vocals of Meloy are the most characteristic aspects of the music and are instantly recognizable to me. There's plenty of Hammond organ and bass which are other aspects about the music that I also enjoy. The production quality is excellent. Everything is very clear and none of the instruments get pushed out of the mix.

While this is more pop-oriented material at times, it's still very good music. Not sure if there's anything progressive here though, but the music is so good that it doesn't matter too much. The band does still have some maturing to do from this release, so I'll give it 4 stars. I can recommend this to fans of folk music (Jethro Tull fans might find things to enjoy about this band) or those wanting something different from modern prog. Although better starting places may be found in "The Crane Wife" or "The Hazards of Love".

Review by kenethlevine
2 stars There's no questioning Colin Meloy's ability to spin a yarn poetically. There's no denying his passion for the historical as recounted from a participant's perspective. There's no doubt that the DECEMBERISTS are a more than talented lot possessing the tools necessary to musically consummate a lyrical vision. In the first half of "Castaways and Cutouts", these truths are self evident. It is in the back 5, and well before the closing 10 minute dirge, that I find myself wishing that Meloy had just published a selection of his best poems rather than muzzle his mates to such a degree.

Even early on in this debut full length album, the seeds of disaffection are sowed; the arrangements in "Leslie Ann Levine" are spare and the melody stingy. "July July" is but a catchy slice of indy pop. These are more than offset by "Here I Dreamt I was an Architect", the gypsy folk of "A Cautionary Song", and the prog monster "Odalisque", one of the band's most layered and profound opuses. But after that it's one static procession after another. I daresay that by this point Meloy had adapted Al Stewart's historian's penchant, for the story may be cogent and worthy, but unless the composition and arrangement are at least half as innovational, it's not worth the studio time. "Grace Cathedral Hill" and "Clementine" might have worked well individually as an exercise in contrast on one of the groups more enthusiastic later efforts, but juxtaposed here they at best disappear into the furniture, at worst drive the listener to distraction. Even "Legionnaire's Lament" exposes that, at this point, the Decemberists" lack both the street wise edge and the lilt of folk rock masters like OYSTERBAND, MEN THEY COULDN'T HANG, and SAW DOCTORS.

There's no dispute regarding the present significance of the DECEMBERISTS to a newly revitalized American folk movement, but "Castaways and Cutouts" was but a baby step in that direction, and seemed more like a set of outtakes from future recordings, a voice bursting with potential in a mostly vain search for a real melody.

Review by Neu!mann
3 stars The darlings of the West Coast coffeehouse crowd were already stretching their boundaries on the band's debut album, adding a measure of faux-English eccentricity and mock-antique charm to their otherwise undemanding Indie Rock sound.

Head Decemberist Colin Meloy would still occasionally gravitate toward that lucrative hit single, in lightweight pop songs like "July, July". But those natural commercial instincts were matched against some equally inborn quasi-Prog ambitions, best heard in the shifting moods and unexpected tempos of "Odalisque", and throughout the too-relaxed, ten-minute mini-epic "California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade", both songs enriched by the vintage '70s echo of Jenny Conlee's Hammond organ.

And the band's fixation with dire Victorian tragedy was given a trial airing in the (literally) haunted "Leslie Anne Levine", sung by the restless shade of a young girl "...born at nine and dead at noon". Even more instructive is the tongue-in-cheek moral of "A Cautionary Song": an Edward Gorey illustration brought to musical life, about a destitute London mother selling her body at night to feed her children by day...not your typical FM radio fodder, in other words.

Meloy enjoys a reputation as one of the more literate songsmiths ever to stroke an acoustic guitar, ready at the drop of a stove-pipe hat to assemble yet another motley cast of playful historical archetypes: countesses, courtesans, and crooked French Canadians gut-shot while running gin. His narrative whimsy extends here from Beacon Street to Birkenau to "Grace Cathedral Hill" in San Francisco (that's actually Nob Hill, Mr. "I'm from Montana" Meloy...), all more or less typical destinations along the author's usual 18th century musical Grand Tour. Name another lyricist able to put himself into the threadbare shoes of a soldier in desert French Algeria, allowing for the serendipitous rhyming of Legionnaire with dreams of a Frigidaire?

Meloy is of course the band's principal singer and sole composer. But it's the accordion work of Jenny Conlee, combined with Nate Query's acoustic upright bass, that gives the music its character. Better efforts would be forthcoming, but this initial album was a remarkably fresh and assured first outing.

Hipster postscript: the album's credits list a "sound clip from 'Archangel', a film by Guy Maddin" (you'll hear it, barely, in the song "California One"). Anyone familiar with the cult Winnipeg director will understand the attraction of his movies to a melodramatic fabulist like Meloy. The 1990 feature borrows is peculiar aesthetic from the primitive histrionics of the late silent / early sound era, in a convoluted tale of amnesia, lost love, and the Russian Revolution. At one point a dying character uses his own intestines to strangle the Bolshevik barbarian who just disemboweled him: a scene that must have left a deep impression on young Colin...

Review by Prog Leviathan
3 stars While I would normally take steps to turn off or avoid quirky indie artists, there is a dreamy and antique charm to the Decemberists that I enjoy very much. In this, their debut, they offer us a variety of artful, densly arranged, and emotional music that tickles the fancy on many different levels. While it doesn't always connect with me on a personal or intellectual level, their sound here is very soulful and soothing.

There are two things one will hear right away on Castaways and Cutouts: the first are the layers of acoustic instruments played with a sort of old-time feel. This is probably the trademark of the Decemberist's sound, and it's great. It's played in a very warm and anachronistic tone that is half tongue-in-cheek, and half crafts-person. The second is the distinctive voice of Meloy, which are smoothly crooned in sort of a nasally drone that is surprisingly enjoyable. His lyrics are surprisingly good, having numerous literate references and playful rhymes that take you to unexpected places.

While not their best album so far, Castaways and Cutouts is recommended for those seeking a mellow sound to add to their prog collection.

Songwriting: 3 - Instrumental Performances: 4 - Lyrics/Vocals: 3 - Style/Emotion/Replay: 4

Review by siLLy puPPy
COLLABORATOR PSIKE, JR/F/Canterbury & Eclectic Teams
4 stars THE DECEMBERISTS began their indie rock career in Portland, Oregon and gained attention with their lyrical focus on historical incidents and folklore as well as combining the musical elements of chamber folk, indie pop, baroque pop and rock. Their style sensibilities can be traced back to the 60s British folk acts like Fairport Convention and the Fairport Convention with a healthy cross-pollination of the indie rock and newer contemporary folk acts ranging from Modest Mouse to The Postal Service and even alt-country acts such as Uncle Tupelo. The music can range from upbeat and even guitar heavy progressive pop to country tinged lush ballads. Their debut release CASTAWAYS AND CUTOUTS is a vocal led journey written by vocalist Colin Moloy's who narrates the tales of the CASTAWAYS of the world such as Spanish gypsies and Turkish prostitutes.

One of the greatest assets of THE DECEMBERISTS is the fact that their music is so diverse. While mainly led by Meloy who is the lead singer, guitarist and chief songwriter, there is also a heavy presence of keyboards by Jenny Conlee who employs ample uses of Hammond organ, accordion, rhodes piano and other synthesized effects. Also on the team is percussionist Ezra Holbrook, Nate Query on upright bass and Chris Funk who adds additional guitar parts including the pedal steel and occasional theremin. All of the these unique instruments add interesting atmospheres and crossover genre styles that give THE DECEMBERISTS their own unique sound. The differences between songs is quite pronounced. While "Grace Cathedral Hill" is more of a sorrowful tale of lament that is a lush country ballad, "The Legionnaire's Lament" is an upbeat pop rock track that utilizes distorted ska guitar techniques, energetic accordion, bass and drum interaction and a extra catchy pop hook.

CASTAWAYS AND CUTOUTS made an immediate impression and accumulated an instant fan base and the band found a unique niche that has been compared (unfairly) to Neutral Milk Hotel although as with any folk oriented bands, similarities can be heard. Although the debut is a much more stripped down affair from the second album on where the band would include more guest musicians adding a more extensive range of sounds, CASTAWAYS AND CUTOUTS focuses more on the strong songwriting and inventive genre fusion techniques led by Meloy. While not as popular as albums such as "The Crane Wife" or "The Hazards Of Love," the debut is a decent album in its own right with a stronger roots oriented feel to it. While i have to admit that Meloy's idiosyncratic vocal style that seems equidistant between country and folk with a little mopey indie rock thrown in for good measure, it ultimately has won me over and fits the mournful saddened feel of the album.

Latest members reviews

4 stars "I've heard of Ghosts..good ghosts, who wonder the battle field at night..guiding solders out of danger.." I found this little gem in a used record store and, being the Decemberists fan that I am, had to pick it up. I was not disappointed. They took my favorite moments of 'Her Majesty' and ... (read more)

Report this review (#182724) | Posted by mothershabooboo | Wednesday, September 17, 2008 | Review Permanlink

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