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The Decemberists - 5 Songs CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

2.26 | 18 ratings

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2 stars This first effort from the Decemberists is not particularly strong I must admit. Colin Meloy’s vocals and witty storytelling are dead-on right from the first track, but musically there is quite a bit of work to be done before this band will be ready for the big stage.

Meloy was only a few months out of his alt-country band Tarkio when this was recorded, and there are definite signs of that kind of musical sensibility in these songs. In particular, the drums are pretty bland, simple tempos, very little variety in the other percussion, and overall quite bland. The band has gone through three or four drummers in their short existence, and I believe the one on this record is Ezra Holbrook, who was much better on ‘Castaways and Cutouts’ the following year before leaving the band, but who is nothing special here.

The keyboards are better, but here again the organ and a little accordion makes for a rather one-dimensional sound which is nowhere near as rich as the band would manage on their subsequent studio works.

I don’t know why this is called ‘5 Songs’ since there are six songs on the EP, but I suppose this is some sort of attempt at clever indie humor. Whatever.

“Oceanside” and “Shiny” both feel like tentative baby-steps for the band, neither making any strong lyrical or musical statement. The now sort-of-famous “My Mother was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” is the middle track. This was a little bit of a sarcastic whimsical tune Meloy wrote for his girlfriend out of frustration when his staid parents began to put pressure on him to abandon music for a more stable career. Meloy is charming here at least with his tongue-in-cheek seriousness and dead-pan delivery in front of almost completely acoustic instrumentation. This kind of reminds me of the cheekily-awkward humor of many standup comedians around today whose parents were immigrants that they constantly make jokes about. The tale of how this fictitious mother of his met her Russian husband and ended up tilling this soil in America is as believable as it is silly, and overall one can’t help but find it charming.

“Angel, Won't You Call Me?” on the other hand has a rhythm that sounds suspiciously like “Twist and Shout”, a decidedly American country-and-western timbre, and pretty plain guitars. Not much to get excited about really, and I suspect this tune was a holdover from Meloy’s Tarkio or Happy Cactus days.

“I Don't Mind” has the kind of brooding vocals and unambitious accompaniment that would become chick by the time ‘Her Majesty’ rolled around, but also by then the band had developed more showmanship and stage presence, the lyrics picked up quite a bit more detail, and the breadth of the percussion and supporting instrumentation grew exponentially. On this track it just sounds slightly amateur.

Finally with the “Apology Song” the band simply proves that their roots are in fact indie rock. This could have easily been a Barenaked Ladies or even a Zutons tune just as easily. Maybe this one should have been left off and this really would have been “5 Songs”.

So a decent first attempt by the band, but not really folkish, and surely not progressive. And really not particularly noteworthy either. I’m glad I have it since it completes the collection, but if I’m not mistaken that also pretty much designates this as a collectors-only piece, so two stars it is. Check out any of their full-length studio albums or their excellent DVD instead.


ClemofNazareth | 2/5 |


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