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The Decemberists - Castaways And Cutouts CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

3.58 | 63 ratings

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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!


ClemofNazareth | 5/5 |


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