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The Decemberists

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The Decemberists Picaresque album cover
3.61 | 84 ratings | 17 reviews | 18% 5 stars

Excellent addition to any
prog rock music collection

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Studio Album, released in 2005

Songs / Tracks Listing

1. The Infanta (5:07)
2. We Both Go Down Together (3:04)
3. Eli, The Barrow Boy (3:11)
4. The Sporting Life (4:38)
5. The Bagman's Gambit (7:02)
6. From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea) (3:42)
7. 16 Military Wives (4:52)
8. The Engine Driver (4:15)
9. On The Bus Mall (6:04)
10. The Mariner's Revenge Song (8:45)
11. Of Angels And Angles (2:27)

Total Time: 53:07

Bonus tracks on 2005 US double LP release - Outtakes :
12. The Bandit Queen (With "Dialogue" And "Tap Dancing") (4:19)
13. Bridges And Balloons (3:13)
14. Constantinople (3:34)
15. The Kingdom Of Spain (Version Prescott) (3:43)
16. The Bandit Queen (Version Prescott) (4:26)

Line-up / Musicians

- Colin Meloy / acoustic & electric guitars, vocals
- Chris Funk / electric & pedal steel guitars, hurdy gurdy, voice
- Jenny Conlee / piano, Rhodes, accordion, voice
- Nate Query / bass, double bass, voice
- Rachel Blumberg / drums, voice

- Christopher Walla / electric guitar, co-producer & mixing
- Paul Brainard / trumpet, horn arrangements
- Joe Cunningham / tenor & baritone sax
- Tom Hill / trombone
- Jeff London / horn
- Petra Haden / violin, voice
- Aaron Stewart / gong
- Eric Stern / tenor operatic vocals
- Sean Nelson / voice
- John Roderick / sound effects

Releases information

Artwork: Carson Ellis

LP Rough Trade ‎- RTRADLP256 (2005, Europe)
2xLP Jealous Butcher - JB-053 (2005, US) With 5 bonus tracks from "Picaresqueties" EP

CD Kill Rock Stars - KRS425 (2005, US)
CD Rough Trade - RTRADCD256 (2005, UK)

Thanks to ClemofNazareth for the addition
and to Quinino for the last updates
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THE DECEMBERISTS Picaresque ratings distribution

(84 ratings)
Essential: a masterpiece of progressive rock music(18%)
Excellent addition to any prog rock music collection(48%)
Good, but non-essential (33%)
Collectors/fans only (1%)
Poor. Only for completionists (0%)

THE DECEMBERISTS Picaresque reviews

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Collaborators/Experts Reviews

Review by ClemofNazareth
4 stars I have no doubt the title of this album was derived from the opening song. “The Infanta” supposedly refers to the coronation of an early 19th century infant Spanish princess, but there are lyrical references that speak of the queen’s barrenness, of a child found among the reeds at the water’s edge, and of pachyderms and other references (including instrumental ones) that hint at an Indian theme.

A picaresque story is a traditional tale about a person of lower caste or poverty who struggles against a corrupt or baseless society. This pretty much describes at least half the characters in Colin Meloy’s songs. His protagonists are all engaged in The Struggle, and are often consumed in cruel and terrible ways as a result of their being simply in the wrong life at the wrong time. The characters in the Decemberists’ tales are all like Voltarie’s Candide (which is an awesome novel, by the way). No doubt that book has been a heavy influence in Meloy’s writing.

This album was recorded in a small, decrepit church hall that the band borrowed and turned into a studio. This was the session that really launched their experimentation with unusual instrumentation such as the hurdy-gurdy, tamtam, toy drums, weird horns, and a small pipe organ. The sessions were sweaty and disorganized and improvisational, and there are several great videos of them on youTube as well as on their recent DVD.

The Jealous Butcher vinyl release of this album also includes the outtakes/b-sides EP Picaresquities, but that isn’t included in either CD version.

“We Both Go Down Together” has become a concert staple for the band, and tells the tale of the young socially mismatched couple whose sad fate is told on the tune “Lesley Anne Levine” off the ‘Castaways and Cutouts’ album. This is the prequel and the two lovers are in their ‘us against the world’ phase. Petra Hayden makes her debut on this album and this song, playing violin as well as providing the gorgeously bored harmonizing vocals that complement Meloy’s so well.

The band slips back into familiar musical territory on the slow and acoustic “Eli, the Barrow Boy”, a poor sod who hawks coal and flowers from an old cart wandering the town all day. He is found drowned of course, since few characters actually remain alive in a Decemberists song. My oldest son does a version of this on guitar when he plays coffee houses sometimes that can cause me to burst into uncontrollable sobbing. Not very seemly for a middle-aged man in a dark coffee house full of young college types, but the hell with them really.

The band keeps wandering musically with “The Sporting Life”, in this case dangerously close to early nineties pop sounds. This one will appeal to hooligans (er, soccer fans): the poor kid in the tale is in the midst of choking in a big way in the championship game of a soccer season with his father and girlfriend and teammates and coach all smothering him in the pressure. If you know Meloy you know how this turns out, and you know it’s not well.

Another acoustic number is “The Bagman's Gambit”, and with it the sordid story of a government agent (CIA? Military?) during the Cold War whose Russian lover is captured as a spy. This one is uncomfortably familiar territory for me, having been stationed as a U.S. Marine on a base in California in the 1980s when two Marine embassy guards were brought in for courts-martial for having given access to sensitive documents to their Russian lovers. Life imitates art, or vice versa. I think both of them are probably still in prison – there’s a Google moment.

“From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)”… well, this one is pretty self-explanatory. Sort of a “Mr. Postman, bring me a dream…” but told by a sad young lass whose man has been lost at sea. Not my favorite Meloy tune, but admittedly consistent for him.

“16 Military Wives” became a notorious video distributed on the peer-sharing network bitTorrent (by the band themselves no less!), and delivers one of the peppiest anti-war, anti-aggression, anti-imperialism tunes you will probably ever hear. Self-deprecation certainly seems to become Americans, at least in the form of their artists and social commentators. This also became the title track for an EP by the band.

There are too many characters and plot-lines to figure out on “The Engine Driver”. Do yourself a favor and give it a shot yourself, it will keep you occupied for hours. Another largely acoustic number, not really exceptional except that Hayden is once again stunning in her barely-interested vocal delivery. It really has to be an acquired talent to give so much to a song while trying so hard to appear not to care.

“On the Bus Mall” is tied to “Grace Cathedral Hill” from the ‘Castaways and Cutouts’ album as far as the story-line continuity, but I really can’t tell if this is chronologically before or after that scene. A traveling song about two runaway lovers staying in a crappy roadside hotel near the highway, sleeping in, and generally making bad and irreversible decisions as they run away in each other’s arms and head-long into disaster.

The band’s most well-known song to-date is on this album – “The Mariner's Revenge Song”. This becomes something of a carnival in concert, and fans generally go almost as nuts as the band themselves do. Check this out on youTube – there are several videos and live clips floating around all over the place.

And the album ends with the softest and most languid acoustic number “Of Angels And Angles”. Kind of a nonsense song, but brings things to a quiet close quite well.

This is not my favorite Decemberists album, but it is the one where the band proved they could deliver unusual music with complex, interesting, and very engaging lyrics that tell tales of people just like some of us. This is music that you have to discover slowly, and some people just won’t get into it. If you are a romantic though, the mushy type that cries during sad movies, you will almost surely get into this album and this band. Four stars.


Review by 1800iareyay
3 stars Up until I saw the Decmeberists' guitar feud with Stephen Colbert, my prog folk was mainly limited to Jethro Tull. After the hilarous duel, I checked out the Decemberists to see if I would like them. Much to my surprise, they hae become the first folk band since Tull to really rock. This band is an odd assortment of indie pop, punk (this album was released on the seminal punk label Kill Rock Stars), and full on progressive folk. The band sound like a cabaret band from the post Civil War era, but with electric instruments and a DIY attitude. The lyrics are always bizarre and, on this album, tend to deal with a struggle against corrupt society. Meloy uses 19th and early 20th century situations to comment on modern issues, though sometimes it's not a metaphor and is in fact about those times. As Bob Moore so skillfully pointed out, the charcters Meloy puts in the songs seem like outtakes from Candide.

The thing that grabs me most about The Decemberists is the weird take on vocals. Meloy's nasal droning is complimented by Petra Haden, who sounds as if she couldn't care less about her parts. The band wondefully mixes many sounds, nearly all of them older than old-school, into a beautiful whole. 16 Military Wives is an anti-war song that delivers its message without the rage of typical anti-war songs. Heck, it's actually funny with the self-deprecating look at America. The Sporting Life is an ode for the kids who were better suited for reviewing prog albums than playing ball ;). Several songs are tied to the last studio album "Castaways and Cutouts." We Both Go Down Together is the prequel for "Lesley Anne Levine,"and On the Bus Mall precedes "Grace Cathedral Hall." Meloy has a thing for moving backwards with his stories (on their next album, Crane Wife #3 comes before 1 and 2). The Engine Driver feautures so many characters you'll be mistaking this for a Gabriel-era Genesis release. Other than 16 Military Wives, the best song on the album is The Mariner's Revenge Song where two sailors find themselves in a Jonah-like situation in a whale, but with the twist that one of the sailors has been hunting the other for 15 years for ruining his mother.

Picaresque is where The Decemberists really start to put things together. They mesh folk, rock, and punk like no else can (come to think of it, I don't think anyone else has ever tried), using terrific arrangements over the flashy guitar workouts that have come to be a staple of modern prog. Things would vastly improve with their next release, but this is still a fine album full of fun and accessible prog folk.

Grade: C+

Review by kenethlevine
4 stars From this introduction to the Decemberists, I cannot account for their presence on progarchives any more than I could endorse the inclusion of veteran eclectic folk rockers like Steeleye Span, The Men they Couldn't Hang, the Pogues, Oysterband and Runrig. (For the record, I think Lindisfarne does belong here). We're talking well written and produced British Isles inflected folk rock with various American pop influences, and nary a first-hand progressive reference.

When I try to compare Picaresque to the offerings of bands that came before, I come up with the list above as well as other fine ensembles that are also not usually mentioned in the same sentence as progressive - REM, Ocean Blue and Levellers to name a few. So, that said, this is still a cracklin' good piece of work. The band knows how to fortify and layer folk music. The use of traditional instrumentation is augmented by horns on songs like "16 military wives" which is immediately infectious and also grows on the listener. Meloy's penchant for clever yet down to earth lyrics is exposed time and again, and works best in the company of melodic, sparse yet full acoustic tracks like "We Both Go Down Together", "Eli, The Barrow Boy", and the transcendent "The Engine Driver". However, "The Sporting Life" really steals the show, reminding me that, yes I do like music I can dance to. Add a cutting message gently delivered and I am smitten and never far from the repeat button.

The closing tracks fully betray the band's heavy weighting towards folk rock in spite of their considerable length. They are mostly verse and chorus dominated and, while "On The Bus Mall" is very enjoyable, they both lack the bold panache of prog. Picaresque is a fine effort and certainly one of my favourites of the last few years. I'm pleased to see such a talented and insightful group become so popular in a style that typically doesn't shed a lot of windfalls. It's not a 5 star effort because I've heard most of these ideas before, but, considering British (or British sounding) folk rock with a sprinkling of punk attitude is a weakness of mine, I heartily welcome new family members, especially in darkest December(or January).

Review by ZowieZiggy
3 stars When I listened to the opening song ("The Infanta"), I was amazed with the similarity with the "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah" sound! Great dynamics, fine melody and interesting lyrics. This excellent start is prolonged with "We Both Go Down Together". This song sounds a bit sad and melancholic; a very touching song.

The mood is again drastically different during "The Sporting Life". The beat (drums and bass) automatically reminds of "Lust For Life" (Iggy Pop). If it weren't for this obvious similarity, I could call this a real inventive track; a true optimistic and positive tune (just as the mother song actually).

It sounds as if "The Decemberists" have decided to switch from upbeat to melody all the way through; but the song writing is really good so far. On par with their good debut album (which was more solid during its first half). Instead of being monotonous like most of the songs from "Her Majesty", the band proposes a very good and inspired collection of songs combining slow parts with very enthusiastic ones ("The Bagman's Gambit").

"Picaresque" seems to follow the same pattern as "Castaways And Cutouts" in the sense that it weakens seriously with "From My Own True Love", and the Beatles-esque "Sixteen Military Wives" is not a masterpiece either.

But the quality is picking up again with the so particular sound of this band which conveys a combination of some sort of sadness and joy at the same time. Quite difficult to describe, this must be experienced. This album is more consistent as their debut with only two average songs.

It is an enjoyable record. At times (The Mariner's Revenge Song) it reminds me as well of Cockney Rebel (The Mariner's Revenge Song) and this is fine with me. A good album, which means three stars.

Review by The Whistler
4 stars Do you know what I love about Colin Meloy? Do you know what I simply adore about The Decemberists? It’s how stupid they honestly are. In an effort to gain critical attention, because the band WANTS to sell out, the Decemberists try and take the indie art folk route. When that doesn’t quite work, they start writing more complex songs, bringing in orchestras and the like. Does that work? Nope. So, for Picaresque, the band brings in MORE orchestras, writes MORE complex, even WEIRDER material. Is that what the people want? I doubt it. But do I care? No way, bring it on.

You want studio sure, right? How about the opener on this one, “The Infanta.” Not as charming as “Shanty for the Arethusa” perhaps, but it cracks down with all the pounding force of a charging Indian elephant, busting in huge, glorious orchestral parts, and a deep, rumbling bassline hidden Colin welcoming the new savior of the subcontinent. Not a bad way to kick things off, eh?

Perhaps the best song on the album though is “We Both Go Down Together,” a sweeping orchestral, almost miniature folk epic, very much in the vein of “Odalisque” in theme and scope. The beauty is a little forced, but still, it’s so nicely put together...I know a ton of bands that would kill to sound this good. Talk about payoff though, after the swoop of “Together,” we’re greeted with the simple, restrained, quietly gorgeous “Eli, the Barrel Boy.” It’s a simple folk tune, but there’s nothing simple about the emotion that runs through it.

“The Sporting Life” is our standard overly cheesey pop song. Once again, the band’s natural ability to compose catchy pop songs is their bane, when “Sporting Life” ends up being a fairly moronic, generic ditty; somehow, I prefer Colin when he’s singing about Victorian rape victims fighting Janissaries on pirate ships than when he’s singing about high school. “The Bagman’s Gambit” is an epic in true Her Majesty style, but I’m not convinced. It’s good when the orchestra picks up, but the acoustic vocal melody is far too lazy for the band at this point.

Oceanic folk ballad “For My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)” is also something that COULD have been pretty at some point, but is far too draggy. C’mon guys, we were supposed to be beyond this by now! Oh well. “16 Military Wives” should drag us out of that dragginess. And so it does. Nothing more than a pop song, glorified with an orchestra (and personally, I don’t dig politics in my songs), but the thing is so darn catchy, and this time without being generic. Damn it, it’s anthemic, complete with a fist pumping refrain and plenty of intelligent twists. It’s easy to see why this one was a pocket hit (and made into an hilarious music video).

But it’s the quiet, unassuming folk ballad “The Engine Driver” that should have been big. I swear; maybe THIS is the best song on the album. When I’m in the mood, it’s one of the most devastating songs in my entire catalogue. I don’t even know why. The simple, sad repeat of “If you don’t love me, let me go” is great, and there’s the “I am a writer” part that gets me every time, but the whole song is gorgeous in its own right. It also slides flawlessly into “On the Bus Mall,” which isn’t nearly as good. Another folky ballad, only this time the lyrics are more interesting than the melody.

Still, for those looking to fuse the macabre, theatrical and humorous sides of the Decemberists, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” should just about do the trick. It’s another epic, this time built around a catchy, stomping nautical verse, that changes just enough to never bore you. The story is hilarious— just trust me when I say it involves everything Decemberisty from widows to whales. Naturally though, we can’t end with the gut busting epic, so the final song is “Of Angels and Angles,” a completely stripped bared ballad. Just Colin and his guitar; no accordions or organs or anything tossed in, honest. All in all, it lets us end on a pretty note, which is fine by me.

All in all, this is the album that pretty much sums up the Decemberists for people. It is certainly one of the most Decemberist-centric albums ever created, the Decemberist album for Decemberist fans, if you will. Everything’s in place, from your bizarre history lesson of an opener, right down to your epic at the end ( technically ends with “Angels and Angles,” but I think we all know that that’s just an afterthought. The REAL end of the story is that “Mariner” thing).

I personally miss some of the even flow and downbeat mood that Her Majesty gave us, but certainly Picaresque has the stronger individual material. Still, we the band hadn’t just come off of Her Majesty, it had come off of The Tain. So where’s my TAIN quality work? Well, it’s not on this album. In fact, Picaresque kind of takes the Tain philosophy of “let’s just have the band playing” and morphs it into a massive orchestral duel that spans the entire record. If Her Majesty was Colin exorcising his Los Angeles ghosts present since “California One” off the first album, then Picaresque is Colin exorcising his “I NEED to have an orchestra playing in every song” demons. From this point onward, the band is capable of putting faith in themselves to sound symphonic, and that’s a good thing.

Not that it’s not fun along the way. Like I said, I might prefer Her Majesty for conceptual reasons, but Picaresque keeps taking the Decemberists in new directions, and with better material. In fact, even though the material was to keep getting better and better, the band would actually have to backtrack with their next album. It turns out that, once you’ve gone as far as Picaresque, and you still DO want to sell records, and it looks like there’s a chance you might get radio play...well, you try something a little subtler next time. But throw subtlety to the wind for just a moment, crawl back into that overblown frame of mind, and give Picaresque a shot. Who knows? Might be fun.

Review by Raff
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Honorary Collaborator
4 stars 2005's "Picaresque" sees The Decemberists return to the promising standards of their debut album, "Castaways and Cutouts", after the disappointment of the rather lacklustre "Her Majesty". Between the two, the Portland band had released the EP "The Tain", and set their sights squarely towards a distinctly more progressive approach to composition. After the flat, vaguely soporific soundscapes of "Her Majesty", "Picaresque" impresses for the variety of musical styles displayed in its eleven songs, and for its dramatic, emotional grandeur. Not as well-balanced as its follow-up, "The Crane Wife", it is nevertheless a deeply fascinating, involving album that shows a band constantly trying to push their boundaries, blending various influences and putting their own individual stamp on them. Even in the world of art, inventing something completely from scratch is very rare - more often than not, the mark of a true artist is their ability to re-elaborate and reinvent what they already have at their disposal.

Just like its title suggest, "Picaresque" is vast and theatrical, a collection of vignettes - some of them connected to songs featured on the band's previous albums - depicting the everyday struggles of their characters against the hardships of life. Picaresque novels officially originated in 17th century Spain, as a reaction to the idealised world of chivalry romances (though they hark back to a much older tradition), with low-class heroes or heroines living by their wits in a hostile social environment. However, unlike what generally happens in the real picaresque novels, Colin Meloy's stories rarely have a happy ending, and his characters remind me rather of 19th century Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga's 'defeated'. Their world is made of loneliness, frustration, injustice, violence, and thwarted love; however, in spite of that, The Decemberists' songs hardly ever come across as depressing. Meloy's splendidly written lyrics depict life, warts and all, but rarely if ever wallow in misery the way other bands seem to do. What helps Meloy to avoid sterile navel-gazing is his ability to conjure up rich, lush imagery (like for instance on album opener "The Infanta"), as well as to inject healthy doses of humour in almost every situation.

Musically, "Picaresque" offers a bit of everything: muted, heartbreaking ballads such as "Eli the Barrowboy" or "From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)" (with Meloy's distinctive voice at its most plaintive), the deceptively light-hearted, poppy ditty "The Sporting Life", the upbeat political manifesto "16 Military Wives", with a horn section to make a traditional brass band green with envy, the involved spy story of "The Bagman's Gambit". The already-mentioned "The Infanta" offers stunning images of fabulous, exotic wealth dressed up in scintillating, infectious musical clothing; while "We Both Go Down Together" (the prequel to "Leslie Anne Levine" featured on "Castaways and Cutouts") sees Meloy in his best Michael Stipe impersonation - the song sounds indeed like an outtake from REM's "Out of Time", though it is none the worse because of that.

The real star of the album, though, appears almost at the very end. The 8-minute-plus epic "The Mariner's Revenge Song" could have come straight from the pens of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht: listen to it back to back with the equally nautically-themed "Pirate Jenny" (also known as "The Black Freighter") from "The Threepenny Opera", and you will see what I mean. Like the German song, it is a tale of revenge (though in this case not imaginary) enacted in the most bizarre of ways - when both the narrator and his nemesis find themselves trapped in the belly of a giant whale - a cautionary tale about evil being eventually punished, one way or the other. Meloy's vocals are supplemented by the reedy but effective tones of guest vocalist Petra Hayden (in the role of the narrator's dead mother), and the pervasive presence of the accordion reinforces the song's early 20th century feel. As a sharp contrast to this dramatic tour-de-force, the album ends with the very understated "Of Angels and Angles", sung by Meloy over a sparse background of piano and acoustic guitar, and ending almost abruptly, in a rather anticlimactic way.

Now to the burning question. Is it prog? Aren't The Decemberists associated with the 'indie/alternative' scene, rather than with the sprawling epics we all know and love? Aren't many of the songs on "Picaresque" too simplistic to be labelled as progressive? Well, things are much more complicated than that. There is something like a 'progressive approach' which, in my humble opinion, transcends the mere nature of the music, and The Decemberists fit this definition to a T.. I see prog rock as much more than 20-minute so-called epics in odd time signatures, with plenty of technical wizardry. The whole concept behind "Picaresque" is what I would personally call progressive, and has to do with the whole package - lyrics, artwork, instrumentation. Obviously, we all know by now that they have been officially invested as a prog band after their latest release, "The Hazards of Love", but I doubt that this recognition applies retroactively for the purists.

As for the rating, I would set this album a notch below its follow-up, "The Crane Wife", which is definitely a more mature effort. However, "Picaresque" will definitely appeal to many a prog fan, even if it does not fit conventional views of prog. A well-crafted, multilayered offering with a profound emotional appeal, it deserves four solid stars, and many unbiased listens. Highly recommended.

Review by russellk
3 stars Not quite at the level of their debut, this, THE DECEMBERISTS' third album, does not go in the direction the progger would have hoped after the release of the superb 18-minute 'The Tain'. This album is a collection of folk-rock songs, with equal emphasis on folk and rock. Some songs rock, some tickle. But say one thing for COLIN MELOY, say he's got something to say!

There are some standout tracks here. The opener, 'The Infanta', is perhaps the best song on the album, sharp, clean and weighty. It is followed by something sounding like THE WATERBOYS, all fiddles and pop beats, overlaid by MELOY's awkward voice. Actually, that's one of the bugs (read 'features') of this album: MELOY's vocals are at their most brittle and least processed here. Nasal, irritating and often almost spoken. But, paradoxically, this allows him to communicate real emotion in songs like 'Eli, The Barrow-Boy' and 'From My Own True Love' - though I suspect many listeners will find them almost unlistenable.

Other outstanding tracks include the sad narrative 'The Bagman's Gambit' and the understated 'The Mariner's Revenge Song'. I also enjoy '16 Military Wives', as much for the startlingly rich imagery as the splendid music. Some of the other songs fall flat for me: 'The Sporting Life', for example, has a great premise, but that annoying beat (what hit song was it stolen from?) just doesn't sustain the track, and why sit with the beat alone for bar after bar in the middle of the song?

In the end, the major flaw on this record is the thinness of the music. At times this sounds like a MELOY solo project, with the rest of THE DECEMBERISTS reduced to little more than spectators. Thankfully, this was rectified on future releases.

Review by horsewithteeth11
4 stars Now THIS is much more like it. The Decemberists really throw you into this album with the powerful opener "The Infanta" and makes me think of their debut. Although the most noticeable difference is how the songwriting is much more mature. The album does have some pop influences, but the hard rock and folk are much more prominent. Meloy's really begun to realize his potential by shifting from writing folksy-pop songs to timeless, memorable ballads. I also enjoy how much of a punch this album brings in comparison to the second release by the band, and come to think of it, it's even stronger here than on their debut too. Some may still claim that The Decemberists don't show any traits of progressive rock, but I believe that they really started to appear on this album, not The Crane Wife. And when they appear, they're in spades. The most notable example of this is in "The Mariner's Revenge Song", a song about the depressing (what else do The Decemberists talk about so well anyway?) tale of some person who were shipwrecked at sea in a violent storm before being swallowed whole by a whale, and to make matters worse, an enemy of his also was swallowed up by the whale. This is a multi-part suite that twists and turns through several different moods and makes me wonder how this song clocks in at a mere 8:45. The production issue from Her Majesty, in which I felt that the instruments were slightly shoved into the background, has been righted on this release.

Some people may say that The Decemberists have only become a prog band with The Hazards of Love, or even not at all. I would heartily disagree with both statements. They may not be "prog" in the traditional sense, but they're certainly a "progressive" band, at least in terms of their approach to music. And sometimes, that's enough to qualify as band as being "prog". And even if they aren't prog, this is still very wonderful music. 4 stars, although for me this is really more like 4.5.

Review by Sean Trane
3 stars Over the last three years, I've been trying now and then to get into this band's world , partly because many progheads like it, and therefore setting my curiosity sensor to 11, only to be cruelly deceived. I mean Decemberists is musically ordinary, stuck somewhere between alternative rock groups like REM, early Radiohead, Oasis, Muse and even sometimes Bowie, the difference being that their albums are definitely conceptual, and come with intriguing and challenging artworks.

Although I've read my fellow reviewer's reviews to try to get this album (as I'd fail to previous one with their help), I ultimately found myself still unable to "get" it. Clearly set on folk music grounds, the album develops. Apart from a weaker moment in the middle of the album, the succession of songs is impeccable, and when listening to it in its entirety, there is a sort of semi-Beatles quality to it. Is it because Decemberists sound often like an acoustic Oasis? Maybe, but I think there is more to than that.

Such an ambitious project doesn't go without an important cast of guest musicians on a variety of familiar instruments, but the weight will obviously carried away by the lyrics, especially that group always made the intelligent choices of avoiding extra texts (which means you fail in your lyrics) and even worse, the extra narratives, like these extra cheesy concept album ala Wakeman etc?.. The downside of having these brilliant but unassisted lyrics is that one must really enjoy the music and be able to listen to it plenty enough for the lyrics finally to seep through. And where things go awry for me, it's that Decemberists' music is simply not deep enough (I mean shallow, not hollow) for me to listen to it sufficiently to really dig it. I mean we're still dealing with light pop/rock music, albeit well written and executed and arranged, but it's not like there are tricky time sigs, lengthy instrumental breaks, or even great interplay between musicians. Sooo you're not looking /hearing prog rock, per se, but their finely crafted pop music into short (? not always) songs into tight story telling themes has some (lotsa) merits.

So, just because IIIIII (yes, moi!!) don't get IT, it doesn't mean that it's no good. As a matter of fact, I DO get the idea and general concept and can see their merit, but I will claim a sort of lone-prowler bearish attitude and wipe it across the room from one paw as non-pertinent to prog. And I probably will see the real click happen a few years down the line. It won't be the first time I missed the right train and had to catch up by taken one sometime later, thus missing the core years of a band/artiste.

Review by Epignosis
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Honorary Collaborator
4 stars A picaresque novel, which comes from the Spanish word "picaro," meaning "rogue, describes the efforts of a low-class antihero- a rascal- who lives by his wits in a crooked society. Therefore, the title of this album fits flawlessly, since each song in some manner is a "picturesque" vignette of an impoverished character and the surrounding circumstances. As usual, the album is chock full of the pedantic vocabulary Colin Melody possesses. At some points, the band maintains the listlessness of their sophomore album, but injects much needed variety, instrumental fervor, and "did-they-really-just-go-there?" lyrics, ingredients that show both the musical and lyrical maturity and direction the band was adopting. In many ways, this album is like a sister to the debut, Castaways and Cutouts, which evokes similar themes and rather uncomplicated music. For those romantic hearts who see the charm amidst the squalor, this is as good as it gets.

"The Infanta" Fitting in with The Decemberist's historical and yet pompous themes, this song is an upbeat depiction of the coronation of the Spanish queen in 1824. The song contains some wonderful wordplay, most notably, "baroness's barrenness." Matters slow down for the Spanish-like bridge, which feature a lovely feminine harmony.

"We Both Go Down Together" Acoustic guitar and violin are the main instruments here. For so many reasons, this sounds incredibly like R.E.M., specifically "Losing My Religion." Essentially, the song is about a wealthy man who rapes or basically rapes a destitute girl and they cast themselves off a cliff, only that, according to Meloy in a live performance of "Leslie Anne Levine," the woman steps back at the last minute, carries the child to term but dies doing so, and shortly thereafter the infant perishes also- whatever the case, this is pretty outlandish and grisly stuff. Someone once told me she and her husband used this as their wedding song, and, simultaneously balking and chuckling, I asked her, "Do you even know what the lyrics are saying?" Without batting an eye, she said, "Oh yes."

"Eli, The Barrow Boy" The stark acoustic guitar and haunting vocals are at once poignant and hard to forget. The sad lyrics give me both chills and pause, as I reflect on the ultimate fate of us all, and that no amount of love or wealth will stay the hand of death. The barrow boy and his love are buried in two different places (his being buried in a churchyard suggests his poverty, or perhaps that he was even an orphan). Furthermore, it's possible he killed himself, given that his only purpose for toiling, it seems, was to shower his true love with something extravagant. Whatever the case, it matters not. They are both dead, and yet his ghost at night still haunts the street, pushing his burden to somehow do in death what he could not do in life.

"The Sporting Life" Meloy doesn't keep the listeners depressed for long, with this jaunty, almost oldies-like number, but the lyrical theme stays well in bounds of heartbreaking. While under an awful lot of pressure from his coach, his father, his teammates, and pretty much everyone he knows, the young man chokes during a soccer match and literally falls flat on the ground. As he looks up, he sees the utter disappointment of his old man, the coach who should've known better than to put him in, and his girlfriend who is, apparently, no longer his girlfriend since she has linked her arm with that of the opposing team's captain. Musically, this is one of my favorite tracks, mainly because of that thick, rich organ that bursts in during what amounts to a chorus as well as that subtle banjo that clucks along. This is a song about failure and humiliation- something I think most folks can relate to at some point in their lives.

"The Bagman's Gambit" This primarily acoustic guitar song is a story of a relationship between an American informant and his Russian spy of a lover. He sees her picture on the news, after she had just shot a policeman. He remembers how, for "a tryst on the greenery," he handed over classified materials. Then one night, the protagonist hears his lover is detained in Russia because her country no longer trusts her, so he bribes a bureaucrat to relocate her to safety. (that's what a bagman does, anyway- delivers ransom money to the boss). There's a gorgeous string interlude that carries alongside some manner of distant buzzing. The acoustic guitar comes in and, in a mighty and long crescendo with Meloy's powerful voice crying forth (and some feminine voice I think, that says something I can't make out but sounds like it could be in Russian). The end of the piece is similar to the beginning, but is somber and saddening: The American must resign himself to merely taking comfort that his lover is alive, but must live knowing they cannot be together. There are variations to this interpretation (aren't there always with The Decemberists?), but that's the gist. When thinking of my own love, that last line always gets me: "With the wave of an arm you were there and gone." While not about death, this song is a poignant reminder than a permanent separation can happen at any moment.

"From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)" Here is yet another melancholic song, which also to my ears sounds a lot like a slow oldies tune, particularly during the chorus. Also acoustic guitar based, this piece has a saddening melody and equally sorrowful lyrics about someone waiting for decades to hear back from a lover who is lost as sea. An uncaring, rumbling drum thunders in the distance.

"16 Military Wives" While I certainly like this song, I think it's one of the weakest ones The Decemberists ever recorded. To me, it sounds like a giddy pop rock song. As for the interpretation of the lyrics, I'll just go on record as to say I don't think this is specifically an anti-war song per se. According to Meloy in a CMJ article dated March 27, 2005: "That song came out of that first verse and it was really just an equation of numbers of war widows receiving news that their husbands had died. It was a way of pointing out how the government and the media feed us numbers and that's how we can make sense of people dying. Everything gets boiled down into numbers, so it made sense from there to create something kind of topical. As soon as I wrote it, I went, "Oh my God! Did I just write a topical protest song?" Essentially this song lambastes both ends of the political spectrum, as well as the complacent people at home who gobble up everything the media throws on their plates. The music video sheds more light on the meaning of the song, as it seems to suggest that as the United States of America increasingly tries to impose its way of living (government, culture, etc.) on other countries, one day former allies will turn.

"The Engine Driver" Twelve-string guitar begins this absolutely enthralling song. The delicate harmonies are beautiful, and the vocal melody itself is unforgettable. It seems each verse represents a different person who has a something they do that is just a fundamental part of who they are, and if they can't be accepted for that, then there is no way they can loved. In a deeper respect, since more emphasis is given to the "writer of fictions," the song is about Meloy himself, who, through creating these tales, exists as all these various people, in many times, places, and contexts.

"On The Bus Mall" Continuing with the twelve-string acoustic guitar, lovely clean guitar showers over it in the introduction of this narrative song. Essentially, this one is about a pair of street urchins who think of themselves as lords nonetheless ("kings among runaways"), but who survive by prostituting themselves to old men, and coping with it ("In bathrooms and barrooms, on dumpsters and heirlooms, we bit our tongues and sucked our lips into our lungs") because that is how they get by. And such is their companionship, they are able to get each other through it ("We laughed off the quick tricks, the old men with limp dicks"). The lyrics describe the squalor and sordidness of their lifestyle perfectly, but the major chords give it the happiness that carries the young fellows through.

"The Mariner's Revenge Song" Another sordid yarn, this one involves two men trapped in the belly of a whale. The narrator recounts to his "whale-mate" exactly how they know each other. It turns out the protagonist is the son of a woman who married this bastard, a man who ran about with the whores and spent all their money on games and drink, only to leave the family with his debts. The magistrate seizes the woman's home, and soon the narrator's mother contracts tuberculosis and dies. But with her dying words, she tells her son to find this rake and visit revenge upon him. After fifteen years, the young man finds a sea captain who fits the description of the villain, so he boards a boat to fulfill his mother's dying wishes. Just then, a leviathan devours them, killing the rest of the crews, but now here they are, two men brought together by coincidence ("divine intelligence," the narrator says). And in the guts of the sea creature, the young man exacts his vengeance. The music is a bit different from what else is on the album, both in instrumentation and in sound. The band reportedly recorded this together in one take, gathered around a single microphone with their instruments and moving back and forth for volume control. The music is completely dark cabaret, with accordion, mandolin and upright bass. There is a refrain in the form of the mother (a sickly wispy female voice) that describes what she wants done in explicit detail; when presumably her son has finished telling his tale and is ready to kill the debonair and cruel man, there is no vocal on the refrain, just an increasingly faster instrumental version that crashes through to the song's violent conclusion.

"Of Angels And Angles" Meloy seems rather obsessed with drowning, both literally and metaphorically ("The Island" and "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)" come to mind). Interpretations, as is usually the case, vary, but mine this is thus: The title is clearly a reference to Pope Gregory I, who, upon seeing some blonde-haired, blue-eyed youngsters in a Roman slave market, inquired of their background. He was told they were Angles, but he replied, "Non Angli, sed Angeli," which is to say, "Not Angles, but angels." Life is, from one gloomy perspective, gradual death, or for Meloy's purpose here, drowning. We breathe and breathe until one day we stop. He contrasts his pessimistic and grandiose notion with the mundane aspects of life, and perhaps the drowning isn't nearly as bad if we have someone to go a-drowning with, someone we find beautiful despite all circumstances. At least I think that's what he's saying.

Review by jammun
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.

Review by Ivan_Melgar_M
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Honorary Collaborator
2 stars Really 2.5 stars

Since THE DECEMBERISTS appeared, all the reviews I read sell them as an excellent Prog Folk bad, but when I heard their albums hated them, so decided to avoid reviewing their albums because I had nothing good to say.

But a few days ago decided to give them a new chance and honestly sounded much better, still I don't believe they are a Prog band, as a fact they remind me more and more of "Out of Time" by REM (one of my favourite non Prog albums) with a Folk edge. so being that my impression has improved at least a bit, decided to give them a new chance

"Picaresque" begins with "The Infanta" and from the start we can notice this guys know their business, the rich combination of instruments makes the music simply delightful, the only weak point is in the vocals, not that "Colin Meloy" is a bad singer, but his impersonation of "Michael Stipe" is really annoying. Still it's a very good song.

I have a real problem with "We Both Go Down together", this guys should pay royalties to REM, because this song is almost a copy of "Loosing my Religion", I simply can's understand why guys so obviously skilled and talented have the need to almost copy another song, if it wasn't for the excellent violin performance by "Petra Haden" would had pressed the skip button, again not because lack of quality, but because lack of originality

"Eli the Barrow Boy" marks a change in the mood of the album, at last they don't sound like REM, now they have a clear BEATLES influence, but they do a great work with this influence adding excellent arrangements and an original approach, good but no relation with Progressive Rock.

When the first notes of "The Sporting Life" begun, I knew I would not like this track, no matter how many times I play it, it sounds boring, repetitive and lack of imagination, like some sort of Pop era GENESIS or COLLINS solo material with slightly better vocals, but that same annoying sound.

"The Bagman's Gambit" is sure an improvement (well anything is better than the previous track), the first two minutes are soft and calmed but when this intro ends, they start to sound as some sort of "COLDPLAY" with netter arrangements. The Hammond Organ (Well, sounds as a Hammond), the violin and the beautiful folksy moments make the listening of this song a nice experience...The Classical final section is enjoyable and the surprising coda is shocking.

"From my Own True Love" really touches me, absolutely nostalgic and melancholic, it would be better if it wasn't for the vocals that by this moment are boring me terribly, so without more comment we pass to "16 Military Wives", an excellent Celtic - Pastoral tune with a fantastic acoustic guitar, my only doubt is if by this point "Picaresque" hasn't turned into a "Meloy" solo project rather than a DECEMBERISTS album?

"The Engine Driver" and "On the Bus Mall" are more of the same, even when some female chorus makes them less annoying, so won't talk about them, being that there's nothing new to say.

The album ends with two folk tracks, the accordion driven #The Mariner's Revenge Son" that at least has more original arrangements and the closer "Of Angels and Angels", which makes me yawn from the start.

My conclusions is that the band would sound better if "Colin Meloy" gave the rest of the band more chance to develop their obvious skills and that even when I enjoy some tracks, still can't understand what this Alternative/Folk band is doing in a full Progressive Rock sub.-genre, when Prog Related would be more accurate.

My rating is 2 stars that should be 2.5 if our system allowed it.

Review by Neu!mann
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.

Review by Prog Leviathan
3 stars This third album by the Decemberists sees the indi-rock darlings escalating the bombast and artistry of their nuanced, hand-crafted songs and stories. The result is a strong show of the band's unique sound and identity that shows progression from their previous two works, and feels like a warm up for the two excellent albums that follow. Taken by itself, Picaresque is an album of stand alone songs that sometimes captivate, sometimes romance, sometimes poke fun at, and sometimes miss the mark, making for a good but not essential prog-folk experience.

The opener "Infanta" is a huge, bombastic, and upbeat attention grabber with a Spanish flair. It's pretty good, and may be a prog fan's highlight of the album. However, it's hardly representative of what follows. "We Both Go Down Together" is a sing-songy tune with an abundance of Meloy vocals and violin counter melody. A good example of a song that has a few moments of appeal but doesn't quite work as intended. We're given songs that are playful and charming, melancholic and sorrowful, and even ambitious balladry like "Bagman's Gambit". This song is another good example of a mixed bag; the composition has numerous dynamic shifts and nuance, but doesn't have the emotional "umph" to resonate. "Mariner's Revenge Song" is better, thanks to its reliance on acoustics and occasional moments of intensity. Ironically, the excellent instrumental performances and nuanced vocals of later albums haven't quite developed yet, but the album retains a strong sense of presence and fun despite this.

For me Picaresque is at its best at its most extreme: very ambitious and "forte," or very acoustic and sensitive. There is too much middling to make this more than a 3-star prog folk release. Those curious about the band should check out the much better albums that follow first, and temper expectations if working backwards.

Songwriting: 3 - Instrumental Performances: 2 - Lyrics/Vocals: 2 - Style/Emotion/Replay: 3

Latest members reviews

3 stars My previous experience with this interesting band comes from their excellent 2006 release The Crane Wife. After enjoying that disc, I decided to take a closer look at this group starting with this album. I find myself really, really liking a lot of their music, but I find some of it just doesn ... (read more)

Report this review (#294046) | Posted by mohaveman | Tuesday, August 10, 2010 | Review Permanlink

5 stars I am not sure if THE DECMBEREISTS really should be labeled Prog. If yes, Progarchive could easily double its list of groups. But who cares?... ....Now, in fact, I do! Because if it had not been for their addition to this site, I likely would have never heard of this great band! Almost all s ... (read more)

Report this review (#175903) | Posted by sivadavis | Wednesday, July 2, 2008 | Review Permanlink

4 stars I'm very glad to see the Decemberists here on PA. This band (and this album in general) really started my love affair with music of many different types (indie, folk, and prog). I had liked music before, but this album took hold of me and turned music into something much more important. For that ... (read more)

Report this review (#121857) | Posted by Speesh | Sunday, May 13, 2007 | Review Permanlink

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